by Samuel D. Gruber
The mid-century modern Gemiluth Chassodim Synagogue in Alexandria, Louisiana, designed by Jewish architect Max J. Heinberg (1906-1982) (of Barron, Heinberg and Brocato) has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The modern synagogue is one of scores - maybe hundreds - of notable modern religious buildings from the 1950s and early 1960s that are now over fifty years old, and thus eligible for nomination and listing.
National Register designation offers an excellent opportunity for congregations to learn about the history of their buildings and to assess building conditions, and to better educate congregation members and the larger community about the architectural and aesthetic decisions behind their modern-style buildings, and to discuss architectural and liturgical merits that might be forgotten or overlooked, especially as congregations seek to upgrade their facilities for the next half century of use. In some states, such as New York, National Register listing can also make some repairs to the historic fabric of buildings eligible for private and public grants (For those considering listing of their own synagogues, I can sometimes help).
According to the NR designation, "The sanctuary is exemplary of two major trends in architecture of the period: abstractionism and the veneration of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is Alexandria’s most abstract piece of architecture from the period and a particularly notable example of Wrightian influence. The period of significance corresponds to the second period of construction: 1960-61." To Wright, I would also emphasize the influence of Percival Goodman, though Gemiluth Chassodim includes some expressive elements of the type that Goodman, too, looking over his shoulder at Frank Lloyd Wright, would also adopt in the 1960s.
According to Jonathan and Donna Fricker of Fricker Historic Preservation Services, authors of the NR nomination, little is known of architect Max Heinberg, but he was apparently a member of the congregation. He was born in 1906 and graduated with a Bachelors in Architecture from Tulane University in 1928. In 1943, he and Errol Barron organized the firm that came to be known as Barron, Heinberg and Brocato. Based on the design of this synagogue, the firm's work deserves some more attention. We also know that New Orleans modernist Edward M.Y. Tsoi worked as a draftsman for Heinberg, early in Tsoi's career.
The Frickers report, "Congregation Gemiluth Chassodim traces its history to the establishment in 1852 of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Rapides Parish, formed to provide for a Jewish cemetery. The first synagogue was completed in 1871, the second in 1908. Both were located in downtown Alexandria. The congregation purchased the land upon which the present synagogue is located in 1946."
This process of the moving from an older pre-World War II building to a new suburban site was very common throughout America from the late 1940s especially through the early 1960s, with the last wave of Jewish urban flight taking place in the late 1960s. Though there is some difference in migration and building patterns between north and south, overall, the pattern holds true nationally. This is true too, for the architecture style of the new synagogue.
You can read the designation report by Jonathan and Donna Fricker, from which I quote or paraphrase, and see more photos here: http://jewishtemple.org/nat-l-historic-register.html
Gemiluth Chassodim is a brick, single story structure located about a mile southwest of downtown Alexandria. According to the report "The facility was built in two stages: the first from 1952-53 and the second, 1960-1961" with greater architectural significance in the second phase. The first building had an overall L-shape footprint with one end of the L given over to an auditorium that also served as the worship space and social hall. The other leg of the L served as classrooms and offices. This type of development - building a synagogue complex in phases was common in the post World War II period, and remains so today. The second phase of construction filled in the original L, creating two courtyards, by adding a second range of classrooms on the north and the present sanctuary with foyer. Construction is of simple materials, mostly brick for walls and brushed aluminum for windows, without extra finish. This was common practice in the 1950s synagogues of Percival Goodman and contemporaries.
Gemiluth Chassodim's architects and building committee saved their big statement - and higher budget - for the sanctuary. The interior is a simple rectangular space that is enlivened by a variegated ceiling heights and angles, and a variety of windows types, especially by a large decorative window screens made of vertical panels of concrete and colored art glass, traversing both side of the sanctuary space. This wall is dramatic and attractive inside and out giving varied texture and colored light to the interior space. Further dramatic lighting is given to the ark and bimah. The ceiling over the bimah is raised and houses a large skylight with a mix of clear and colored rectangular panes. Light pours into this - probably especially in the late afternoon - and suffuses the east end of the sanctuary.
The Fricker's describe the sanctuary this way:
"Various architectural and artistic devices come together to form the singular space that is the sanctuary interior. Chief among these are the varying ceiling types and heights; the varying textures of the wall surfaces; the art glass panels; and the dramatic effect of the sun trap created by the lantern. Entering the worship space from the lobby one steps into a circulation area running the width of the sanctuary with a glass wall to the right (looking out onto a courtyard). The ceiling is flat and fairly low in comparison to the lofty heights of the great angled roof covering the seating for the congregation (the architectural device of compression and release so beloved and used by Frank Lloyd Wright). A central aisle bisects the fixed auditorium style seating (original). The floor slopes slightly toward the bimah, a raised platform where the pulpit is located. The ceiling, as it approaches the bimah, is lower and angled toward the rear. The focal point of the bimah (and indeed the sanctuary) is the Ark housing the Torah scrolls, in this case a tall wooden cabinet with an angled top.
Outside, more expression is given to the east end, where "its massive walls (with no openings) come together at a broad angle to create a stark and strong impression. The roof (the back part of the lantern) registers as a pair of angled planes joined at the same broad angle. The lines of the standing seam metal roof energize the abstract composition."On each side, the upper gable of the main roof is inscribed with a broad pentagon-shaped window of clear glass. Each window features a large stylized menorah (as previously noted). Below the windows are the previously noted panels of art glass and concrete. The broad sections of art glass panels dominate the side walls of the sanctuary. They are recessed from and set off by contrasting brick walls to each side. Luminous honey-colored wooden wall sections marking the back circulation area and accenting the bimah provide additional contrasting color and texture.