America's First Post-WWII Expressionist Synagogue? Erno Fabry and Texas (Jewish) Modernism
by Samuel D. Gruber
One unexpected Texas treat was finding at the stunning recent (2000) Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth a careful and considerable effort to preserve many elements from the congregation's previous building, erected in 1920 and substantially rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1946. This is evident even before one even enters the new building complex. Large limestone menorahs that adorned the old brick building are now affixed to the exterior of the new building, flanking the entrance gates. Inside, there is also a history alcove that preserves parts of the earlier stained glass, the entire ark from the remodeled synagogue, and other building memorabilia.
This ark, like the other elements of the 1946 redesign, was the work of Jewish émigré designer Erno Fabry (born Erno Fay Friedmann) in what is now Košice, Slovakia, in 1906 (or 1907 or 1908). Fabry had recently set up an office in Dallas, and he was already an active furniture and interior designer in Texas. He was an important modernist who designed in the post-World War II decades. I don't know if his work is included in the new exhibition Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, but it should be.
The Beth-El synagogue interior redesign combined Art Deco, expressionist and modernist features that would shortly be developed more fully in the architecture of Erich Mendelsohn and others. Košice, where Fabry was raised, was then Kashau, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but Fabry, the son a middle-class Hungarian Jewish family, came of age during a period of Czechoslovak political nationalism and artistic modernism including Czech cubism and expressionism, and wide-spread adoption of Bauhaus principals.
Freidmann changed his middle name to Fabry and he graduated from the Czech Technical University in Prague in 1930, at which time he was already proving himself as a designer of furniture and interior design. He was also a strong graphic artist and involved in theater design. Fabry's father was in the wood milling business, and presumably that is where Erno got his early training in wood - a material he favored all his life. This early part of Fabry's career is traced in the valuable catalog to an exhibition of his work at the Evergreen Museum & Gallery at The Johns Hopkins University in 2009.
Fabry's ark wall for Temple Beth-El is of reddish Colorado Travertine (not wood as mistakenly reported in the Evergreen catalog). Fabry allowed the grain to create a design of undulating vertical lines that subtly reinforces the lines of the ark. The ark itself from Fabry's 1946-47 redesign is of luminous Colorado travertine and delicate but dynamic metal work for ark door. Today, it is installed in the history room at the new Beth El, where its monumental character is emphasized. The ark door has served as a model for the new gates to the synagogue. The stone frame of the ark recalls Art Deco examples, but the bent lintel also echoes the playful expressionism found in Czech cubist designs.
Friedmann came to the United States in 1938, apparently to work at the American Wood Council, possible on a grant on because he won a competition. Soon he was also working for leading designer Norman bel Geddes, assisting with designs for the 1939 New York World's Fair. His family, left behind in Košice, perished in the Holocaust. In 1942 Friedmann volunteered for the U.S. Army, and attained U.S. citizenship. He participated in the North African and Italian campaigns, and the invasion of Normandy. Around this time he adopted Fabry as his last name.
After the war, for reasons unknown, Fabry was attracted to Texas, where he established an office in Dallas and found work developing displays and product lines for the American Furniture Company, a home furnishing business founded in 1935 by fellow Czech Jewish émigré, Emanuel Blaugrund. In 1949 Fabry designed a seven-story store for Blaugrund in El Paso. Fabry also worked for the Dallas-based Jewish-owned Neiman Marcus department store, and for Meacham's in Fort Worth. in the following years his business grew to include big stores in Kansas, Wisconsin and the Fort Worth furniture maker A. Brandt Company.
According to Beth-El archivist Hollace Weiner, Fabry "did work in El Paso for the Amstatter brothers. They bought Meacham’s in Ft Worth, moved to FW, and joined the Temple. Because of the Amstatters, the Temple approached Fabry, or so I was told." Weiner thinks that he probably renovated Meacham’s Department Store the same time he was working on Beth-El, though the exact dates of work would have to be compared. This type of multi-tasking for architects was common, especially when working on less remunerative commissions like synagogue designs. For example, Henry Hornbostel worked on Pittsburgh's Rodef Shalom while he engaged building Carnegie-Mellon and Detroit's Albert Kahn used the same workmen (and many of the same details) on the the Fisher Building and the contemporary Temple Beth El.
In 1950, Fabry moved permanently to New York, where he founded Fabry Associates, Inc. in 1950, and in 1952 his glass-topped walnut table was included in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent design collection. Fabry closed his studio in 1971, after which he focused on sculpture and painting until his death in 1984.
Thanks to Hollace Weiner who made me aware of Fabry's contribution, and has kindly made some necessary corrections to this account.