Thursday, November 12, 2015

Remembering Architect Henry Fernbach (Died November 12, 1883)


  New York, NY. Central Synagogue. Henry Fernbach, arch. Image from Harper's Weekly (July 6, 1872), courtesy of the William A. Rosenthall Judaica Collection, College of Charleston Libraries.

 New York, NY. Central Synagogue. Henry Fernbach, arch. (1872, restored 2000). Photo: Peter Aron in Stolzman, Synagogue Architecture in America, 116

Remembering Architect Henry Fernbach (Died November 12, 1883)
by Samuel D. Gruber

On this day in 1883, architect Henry Fernbach, one of the first successful Jewish architects to practice in the United States and a favorite architect of the New York City Jewish community, died suddenly in his New York office. Fernbach was also an early member of the American Institute of Architects.

Fernbach was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1828.  He graduated from the Building Academy in Berlin and came to the United States in 1855. His early death at age 55 deprived Jewish New York of one if its most successful and creative talents. Fernbach had designed three important Manhattan synagogues, as well as the Hebrew Orphan Asylum on 77th Street. He also was active as a commercial architect, often for Jewish patrons, such as the Stern Brothers, for whom he designed an impressive store on Ladies' Mile at 32 West 23rd Street.


New York, NY. Congregation Shaaray Tefila, 127 West 44th Street. Henry Fernbach, arch. (1869). Photo: Moses King, King’s Handbook to New York. Boston: Moses King, 1893 (2nd edition), 403.

Today, Fernbach is best remembered for his design of the still extant and popular Central Synagogue (Congregation Ahavath Chesed) at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue built in 1872, but he also collaborated with Leopold Eidlitz on the design of Temple Emanuel, opened in 1868, and he designed Congregation Shaaray Tefilahon 127 West 44th Street. All of these buildings introduced new materials, forms and decorations to New York's synagogue architecture. Certainly, it was through Eidlitz and Fernbach's use of Central European "Oriental" designs that the "Moorish" style caught on with American Reform congregations in the post-Civil War period.
  
Among other secular buildings Fernbach designed were New York's Germania Savings Bank (1870), the Statts Zeitung building and cast iron loft buildings at 69 and 71-73 Greene Street (1877) and  114 Greene Street (1881).  The Germania Savings Bank was a magnificacne strucutre that dominated its corner site at 14th Street and 4th Avenue, where it stood until 1962.  

Tom Miller writes on his excellent blog Daytonian in Manhattan of the building that:
"Five stories tall, its regimented façade featured the arched openings, separating pilasters and cornices at each level made popular by the French Second Empire style currently all the rage.  Ferbach used the corner plot to visual advantage, placing the entrance on a chamfered point and crowning it with a faceted dome.  Architectural critic Montgomery Schuyler pointed to the building as an example as to why Fernbach “is one of the most accomplished practitioners in this country of academic Renaissance.”  A year after the building’s completion Fernbach would design a near-clone in Philadelphia with his New York Mutual Insurance Company building. "

New York, NY. German Savings Bank at 14th Street and 4th Ave. Photo:Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York  

Soon after in Philadelphia Fernbach designed the New York Mutual Life Insurance Company (now Victory Building) in 1873. The National Register listed Second Empire style building has recently been converted into condominium apartments. I have fond memories of this building and am glad it has been saved from demolition. In the late 1960s I spent many of the afternoons there working in the headquarters of Student Mobilization Against the War, and in 1968, Eugene McCarthy for President headquarters. 


Philadephia, Pennsylvania. The Victory Buiding (18??). Photo; Samuel D. Gruber 1982.

After Fernbach's death the mantle of "New York's Jewish architect" passed to Arnold W. Brunner, who had worked briefly in Fernbach's office as a teenager and who graduated in architecture from M.I.T. in 1879. In the 1880s and 1890s he took over work that might have gone to Fernbach

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