by Samuel D. Gruber
When I recently gave a lecture at the center for Jewish History on the synagogues of New York I showed in passing an image of the former Temple Beth El, designed by Brunner & Tryon and built in 1891 on Fifth Avenue at 76th Street. The impressive building, described in the New York Times at the time of its opening as ""magnificently decorated," was demolished in 1947. After the lecture, I was asked "what was that big thing on the front of the building?" That "thing" seems strange to use today because most of the 19th and early 20th century examples of this synagogue element have been destroyed.
In the words of architectural historian Rachel Wischnitzer, that element at Beth El was a "large, hipped, axial dome, tied to the front part of the basilican structure and covered with a ribbed and patterned, gilded decoration." The feature joined two disparate forms from the well-known contemporary architectural language. Thus, what was essentially a tall French Empire Mansard-style dome was given orientalizing (or Moorish) decoration recalling, in its patterned ribbing, the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue of Berlin. By 1891 the once strange Oriental or Moorish style was now fully accepted and widely understood as a "Jewish" style - whatever its origins.
I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the predecessors of Beth El, and how the form continues into the early 20th century.
The tall hipped dome, often called a French Dome, was first used in synagogue architecture by the Italian architect and engineer Alessandro Antonelli for the synagogue of Torino (Turin), Italy, which came to be known as the Mole Antonelliana, begun in 1863 and finished only in 1889. Though started as a synagogue, the Torino Jewish Community sold the building to the city in 1876 as height and costs soared. The community had previously halted construction, but not before erected an exceptionally tall hipped roof, a version of which was incorporated into finished building. Brunner had traveled widely in Germany and was familiar with publications about synagogues, so he certainly was familiar with the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue. He would have known - at least from pictures - the Mole Antonelliana, too.
There were, however, two more immediate sources for the Beth El dome, one in New York and one in Chicago, and both designed by Jewish architects. New York architect Henry Fernbach, for whom Arnold Brunner had worked while still a teenager, designed the new Shaaray Tefilah Synagogue on West 44th Street, which opened in 1869. At that time Shaaray Tefila was nominally Orthodox, though during the next decade the congregation modified its service and identified more with the nascent Reform Movement. This was almost certainly Brunner's own congregation. His grandfather Barnet Solomon was president of the congregation when the new synagogue was built, and presumably this is where young Arnold would have received his religious training and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in 1870. In many ways Brunner's Beth El recalls Fernbach's design, especially in the disposition of the facade and the placement of a large dome over the central entrance. This dome was multi-partite and seems to have been decorated with stars on its outer shell.
A variation on the theme can be seen in the lovely little Moorish style Temple Gemiluth Chassed, designed by architects Bartlett & Budemeyer, and built in Port Gibson, Mississippi, built in 1891-92, almost exactly contemporary with Brunner's Temple Beth El.
In the early 20th century there were many examples and variations of the central square facade dome in European synagogues. All the European synagogues of this type have not been identified, but a quick survey (in my image collection) shows examples from Poland (Czestochowa, 1899-1909), Germany (Osnabrück, 1906) and Russia (Samara, 1908).
This may be an unusual case of reverse influence, with the impetus for the square facade domes coming from America. But there were already centrally placed domes on square towers in Europe, too, such as that on the Tlomackie Street Synagogue in Warsaw, built by Italian architect Leandro Marconi, in 1874-1878.
If you know of other examples of similar synagogues with facade domes, please let me know.