USA: Beachwood Ohio's Fairmount Temple is a Monument of Mid-20th-Century Jewish Art and Architecture
by Samuel D. Gruber
If you are an admirer of Mid-Century Modern synagogue art and architecture - or are just merely curious - then Cleveland and the suburb of Beachwood, Ohio, are required stops. Two of the most splendid, innovative and influential modern synagogues were built for Cleveland congregations in the early 1950s; designed by Eric Mendelsohn and Percival Goodman, the premier synagogue architects of the post-World War II era.
The German-born Mendelsohn designed the Park Synagogue, his late masterpiece, for the Conservative congregation. Design began in 1946, and the synagogue was dedicated in 1953. Soon after Mendelsohnbegan work, his younger American-born rival Percival Goodman was commissioned to design a large new home for the Reform Congregation Anshe Chesed, which decided to move from its impressive Euclid Avenue Temple at East 82nd and Euclid Avenue, dedicated in 1912.
Congregation Anshe Chesed obtained a 32-acre parcel of land off Fairmount Boulevard in Beachwood, just over the eastern border of the city, and area still new to Jews. The new facility, begun in 1951, was named the Fairmont Temple. It still serves a large and vibrant Reform congregation. The move wasn't easy. There was a protracted zoning battle opposed to Anshe Chesed's plans that went to the Ohio Supreme Court before the City of Beachwood approved the construction. Anshe Chesed’s Fairmount Temple was dedicated on May 31, 1957.
I was recently in the Cleveland area lecturing, and was able to visit a few synagogues, as well as the excellent Maaltz Museum. Unfortunately I did not revisit Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights - as it is only open on Saturdays (I did visit the beautiful and more recent Park Synagogue East on Pepper Pike,, designed by Centerbrook Architects, but that is another story). But the time I spent at the Fairmount Temple was enough of a reward. Goodman's designed chapel and sanctuary and most of the original facility is well maintained and still close to the original appearance, including the rich array of modern religious art by post-war Jewish Jewish luminaries Abraham Rattner and Ibram Lassaw. Many other works of Judaica from the congregation's history are well displayed. These include liturgical objects as well as Jewish-themed Fine Art, such as Abraham, Isaac and the Angel by Elbert Weinberg, about whose Procession I recently wrote.
Like many of Goodman's designs, Fairmount Temple is enlivened with bold accents - often of jutting diagonal forms. Here, we first notice the zig-zag roof line, and coming closer we are greeted by a entrance porch pushing forward and upward, supported by brightly designed mosaic-covered piers, that thicken as they rise to support the porch roof. Abstract artist Abraham Rattner designed the mosaics and the bright angular almost shard-like forms remind us of Rattner's work at the Chicago Loop Synagogue, where he designed the great stained glass window. Inside Fairmount, Rattmer also created large decorations for the chapel though some of these are now displayed in the social hall.
An open court of the original design has now covered, and it has been given a veneer of Jerusalem or Jerusalem-like white limestone. This space now serves as a large and main foyer. The limestone is at odds with the simple beauty of Goodman's wood and brick surfaces, but these survive throughout much of the complex. The highlights of the interior are the small chapel and the large sanctuary, which demonstrate Goodman's capacity for intimacy and grandeur, but there is also much to enjoy in the small details and the arrangement of parts.
The sanctuary is large, light and airy. The first impression is that the side walls are made of stained glass panels, but in fact the walls are a lattice of pastel painted colored panels, set at an angle, that filters the light from the alternating clear window panes. The only colored glass is found in rectangular panes set into the east wall above and around the Ark. The floor slopes gradually to the front, where the bimah rises in steps to a moderately high platform, with the pulpits and Ark visible to all.
The Ark is a free-standing niche of white marble or polished limestone. A large bronze wing hovering over a beaten bronze orb (presumably the sun) t hat also serves as the ner tamid, sculpted by Ibram Lassaw, is applied to the valence of the Ark. The wing recalls the wings of the cherubim seated on the lid of the Ark of Covenant as described in Exodus. This single wing is a dramatic abbreviation, and it also can refer to the sheltering wing of a protecting God. The orb recalls other works of Lassaw for other synagogues, notably Beth El in Providence, and formerly in Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York (now in the Jewish Museum, NY)
More relief sculptures by Lassaw adorn the sidewalls of the sanctuary, affixed just under the window level. These ten abstract designs suggest galaxies and stars and planets that relate to the sun on the Ark, and suggest a symbolic divinely created cosmos. They are, however, referred to as the "Attributes of God," or ten sefirot, with names including "Creation," "Wisdom," and "Creativity." Did this iconography come form Lassaw? In any case, these sculptures need to be considered in the literature of Kabbalah and art, along with contemporary work by Barnett Newman and a few others.
The rear wall of the sanctuary is a wall of doors that can be opened to expand the space to the social hall. But above the doors is a large west-facing window made to in the form of a grid-like mosaic.
In the social hall. now affixed to the wall that connects to the sanctuary, are three large wall hangings designed by Abraham Rattner, originally form the chapel. I'll try to address the significance and meaning of these in a future post.
One of the virtues of Goodman's synagogue work is how often he was able to combine expressive form and Jewish modesty through the use of simple - even humble - materials. Fairmount Temple is no exception (I have previously written about this in the context of Beth El in Springfield, MA). . Most of the work is achieve with simple brick, finished plywood for doors and panels, and plaster for ceilings and walls. It is striking - and a a lesson in aesthetics - to compare one side of the lobby area with its original Goodman brick with the piers opposite- which are clad in polished stone. The brickwork on the exterior, too, is quite good. Variations in shading of the brick is used t good effect to create indistinct patterns or perhaps to suggest the ever present variations of the natural world - even in a design and constricted building.