Wednesday, October 8, 2014

USA: A Well Designed Hillel House at Trinity College

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: cPeter Aaron / OTTO

USA: A Modern Hillel House at Trinity College
by Samuel D. Gruber

(updated 10/9/2014)

Thanks to Lisa Kassow, Robert Kirschbaum and Peter Aaron

While visiting Trinity College last week to give a lecture for the Jewish Studies Program, I had the pleasure of visiting the The Zachs Hillel House, one of the most attractive Hillels I've seen in my travels. There is a long tradition of creating distinctive - and distinctively modern - Hillel Houses.  In the early decades of Hillel several talented young architects such as Max Abramovitz and Sidney Eisenshtat cut their teeth with Hillel commissions. In the 1990s Harvard alumni were able to engage star architect Moshe Safdie to design their Rosovsky Hall a substantial and formal building.

At Trinity, the more modest Zachs Hillel house fits in well on its residential street, keeping the narrow form of the neighboring wood-frame houses, though rising a story higher.  The dynamic roof line creates a special look - but one not at odds with the high-gabled neighboring houses. It is a good lesson that contextual architectural does not have to be slavishly imitative.

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: cPeter Aaron / OTTO

Designed by Boston-based architects Leers Weinzapfel Associates, with Natasha Espada as lead architect, it opened in 2001. The $2.8 million facility was made possible through the generosity of Henry Zachs ’56 and family. The building sits on a tight urban residential lot and packs a lot into its 8,000 square-feet space. There is a functional basement (with a ping pong table, pool table and TV and home theater system), and two stories above ground, with the upper story that houses the multipurpose prayer space built at double height. The house boasts a complete kosher kitchen, a large dining room, a library, a recreational area, a living room, and several smaller meeting rooms. 

 The front of the house facing the campus is open and public, while the rear facing the neighborhood is more enclosed. This means that the building really has two entrances, but unforeseen by the architects, most students using the building enter from the rear - not the street. They enter directly into the dining room (perhaps intentionally) rather than the cozy book-lined sitting room, which was designed as a welcoming space. 

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo Samuel D. Gruber 2014

The most impressive space is a large multipurpose room for prayer, lectures, and other gatherings on the second floor.  This is reached by a long staircase.  The room is beautifully finished in cherry wood, and is open and inviting.  Seating is flexible and all the furniture is portable. In the early evening when I was visited, the fading light was beautiful.  According Lisa Kassow, Director of Hillel, it is even more magnificent in the late afternoon when students, staff and community gather for Kabbalat Shabbat services. According to Kassow: 
Often, there are very dramatic shadows created by light coming through the slats on the upper sections of the tall windows. The room becomes a magnificent space of natural light and shadow painted in intensely warm cherry and pine wood tones. Grey translucent window shades create muted silhouettes of the tree tops and buildings around us. I often think of it as a beautiful Sukkah in a tree house, which was the inspiration for the Mizrach art piece that hangs on the wall facing east which says -  ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלום Spread over us a shelter of peace  -  from the Hashkiveinu prayer in the evening service.
Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: cPeter Aaron / OTTO

Whether intentional or not. the position of the space is in an ancient tradition (the Talmud recommends that a synagogue be high), best experienced in the historic upper level synagogues of Italy.  Today, the practice is less common, but it been wonderfully executed by architect Carol Ross Barney in Evanston, Illinois for the Evanston Reconstructionist Synagogue.

Evanston, Illinois. Evanston Reconstructionist Synagogue. Carol Ross Barney, Architect. View in the sanctuary to the treetops. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2010 

When I visited and wrote about that synagogue in 2010, I didn't know about the Hartford Hillel, which predates it, and is prescient in its placement of the well-windowed worship space high high among the trees.  The wood finish of the interior walls and the expert wood cabinetry of the Ark and readers' table, made in 2005 by Mark Leue of Williamsburg, Massachusetts bring the natural element indoors.

Artist and Trinity College Professor Robert Kirschbaum and his work Squaring the Temple on the Zachs Hillel House stairway. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photos Samuel D. Gruber 2014
One approaches the second story mufti-purpose worship space by a steep stairway that is a dramatic note of the interior space.  It has been used accordingly for art exhibits and even the performance of a Purimspiel.  Today a series of works on paper, three etchings in the series Squaring the Mount by artist Robert Kirschbaum who teaches at Trinity, hangs on one wall.  The theme of the work - the changing architectural emphasis on the Temple Mount, expressed through pure geometry shapes - coincides nicely with the lines of the Hillel building, and its historic purposes. I was glad to sense this even before Bob sent me his own explanation of work, from which I quote just a part
The etchings depict the plan of the Temple Mount as it exists today, a form largely unchanged since the Herodian era (67 BCE to 70 CE).    Each print contains the rectangular plan of one of the historical phases of the Temple: Squaring the Mount, #2  delineates Solomon’s Temple, #3, the Hasmonean-era Second Temple, and #4, Herod’s Temple.  A square equal in area to each of these rectangles is also constructed; and there is an indication for the position of the Foundation Stone -- considered the axis mundi, the site of Abraham’s altar, and the central point of the Temple’s inner sanctum (the Holy of Holies).   So, one can “read” each image right to left:  On the right, the plan of the Mount and a version of the Temple.  In the center, the process by which each is transformed into a square.  On the left, the resulting squares in a concentric array, each respectively encircled.  The circles are re-struck in the right-hand panels, using the foundation stone as their center, completing the cycle.
I am honored to have my prints installed in the Zachs Hillel House, the locus of Jewish communal and spiritual life at Trinity College.  It seems appropriate that they are located on a lintel situated between the more secular communal areas of the building’s first floor, and the sanctuary above.  They are most often viewed from the stairwell, as one rises, or descends, from one “realm” to another.  And because of the particular nature of the installation, the repeating arcs and circles of each panel -- nine in all -- reinforce the symbolism of the lintel, in the architecture of the ancient Near East, as a depiction of the heavens, traversed by the solar disk.   I am most pleased by this synergy between my art and the building’s architecture.  In close proximity to the sanctuary, I trust that my work will trigger a conversation between the viewer, the worshiper, and their surroundings, fusing symbol and object, spirit and substance, and leading to a deeper awareness of the sanctity of the space which surrounds us a.

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Ark and reader's table made by Mark Leue. 2005.  Photos Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Hartford, CT. Zachs Hillel House, Trinity College, 2001. Photo: cPeter Aaron / OTTO

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