Monday, April 16, 2018

USA: Cincinnati's Alhambra (Plum Street Temple's Dazzling Interior)

Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. View to ark from entrance. Interior first painted by Wenceslas Thien, 1874. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. View to ark from entrance.Interior first painted by Wenceslas Thien, 1874. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. Organ loft over vestibule and entrance. Interior first painted by Wenceslas Thien, 1874. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

USA: Cincinnati's Alhambra (Plum Street Temple's Dazzling Interior)
by Samuel D. Gruber

I recently wrote about Cincinnati's Plum Street Temple in its urban context within the city's mid-19th-century downtown civic and religious space. That was all about the context of the building and a little about the outside. But what one experienced  - and still does - upon walking inside after 1874, when the sanctuary was first painted, bore little relationship to any of the nearby buildings with which the Temple's exterior was in conversation.

In this post we look at that interior and trace some history. I want to thank  Temple archivist Andrea Rapp, who has answered many questions for me, and whose research into the chronology of the building is reported in the beautifully illustrated new book The Sanctuary of Our Souls: The History of Plum Street Temple 1866-2016. I visited the Plum Street Temple last fall and the pictures in this blog are my own, but the book is filled with many more.

The Temple, designed by Cincinnati architect James Keys Wilson and dedicated by  Congregation Kehillah Kedoshah B'nai Yeshurun in 1866, is often described as America's first Moorish style synagogue. It is that, but, like Gottfried Semper's Dresden Synagogue (1838-40), its association with the style comes almost entirely from its painted decoration. Architecturally, the massing of the Plum Street Temple is that of the Romanesque-type synagogue common in the 1850s, and many details are those of a Gothic-style basilica of the period. There are two side aisles flanking a high central nave. Rows of octagonal columns (probably with iron cores) are surmounted by high and wide ogive (pointed) arches and separate the aisles to create a steady rhythm down the longitudinal axis of the interior. The eye travels quickly from the main entrance to the raised platform of the bimah and the fanciful but Gothic-inspired ark. The ark is surmounted by the tall pointed arch, a triforium, and a large bifora window in the form of the Tablets of the Law, set within a large roundel. One notable feature is the use of small domes to roof the nave and aisle bays instead of the more common Gothic cross vault. Small domes like these were used in medieval churches and mosques but in the 1860s were not common in American design.

Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. Ark. Interior first painted by Wenceslas Thien, 1874. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. Ark. Interior first painted by Wenceslas Thien, 1874. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. Inscription and Decalogue window above the Ark..The passage is from Psalm 19:8 "The law of the lord is perfect, restoring the soul." Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
It is the painted decoration that was so unusual. The inside of the Plum Street Temple is shocking in its seemingly endless use of pattern and color to cover every wall surface and to fill every window. Most likely, previous American synagogue interiors had only been lightly painted, so the source for the Plum Street Temple came from no earlier American example, though increasingly throughout the Victorian period, church interiors were covered with stencil decoration in neo-medieval patterns.The development and publication of historic and new decorative languages after the 1850s is part of this trend. We have to remember that until 1969, the exterior of the synagogue was painted a monochromatic gray to imitate stone. Thus the shock of interior color was all that much greater. Today, we see the exterior colorful contrast of sandblasted brick and limestone; actually a well-intentioned but historically incorrect intervention of the early years of the modern historic preservation movement  when the city forbade the painting of brick (Baltimore's Lloyd Street Synagogue was similarly exposed in the 1960s).

Though there had been discussion of a new Temple since at least 1860 (and given Wise's ambitions immediately upon arriving in Cincinnati in 1854 he possibly dreamed of a new congregational home much earlier). The years of the Civil War put a halt to any fund raising and building. Still, in 1863 the congregation bought the lot on which the new Temple would be built, and the next year engaged James Keys Wilson as architect.

Around this time, in the April 22, 1864 issue of the Israelite (the Jewish journal written, edited and published almost exclusively by Rabbi Wise), there is included a letter from Germany that informs that "in Berlin Jews are building a large and magnificent synagogue which will be ranked among the most splendid public edifices.” This refers to the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, the great Moorish building designed by Eduard Knoblauch in 1859, which August Stuehler completed in 1866.The building was much illustrated at the time of its dedication, but particulars of its design were already well known. These included much iron and glass, gas lighting, Moorish details, a vast sanctuary, and a tall domed entry wing facing the street.

The impetus for the Plum Street may have come from Germany, but the details for patterns were derived from Owen Jones' studies of the Alhambra in Spain published in great detail in 12 parts from 1836-1845 as Plans, Elevations, Sections and Details of the Alhambra. It was the world's first significant published work utilizing chromolithography, a process Jones helped develop. In 1856 Jones published the more widely accessible and affordable Grammar of Ornament, in which he summarized the Alhambra work in the section "Moresque Ornament" (p. 130 ff in the digitized. version). Given the level of detail in the interior planning, it looks like the architect of Plum Street had a copy of the earlier and larger Alhambra publication at hand, too.

Not to be outdone by developments in Europe, just two weeks after the report on Berlin's synagogue, Wise announced in The Israelite (May 6, 1864) that Cincinnati's new Temple would be "in the Byzantine style, with two steeples and several minor towers, which was preferred. The building according to the plan will be truly grand both in design and dimensions." At the time, however, it is not clear that any final design has been made, and precisely what Wise meant when he used the term "Byzantine," as it was at the time used to indicate the  Romanesque style. The cornerstone was not laid until May 9,1865, and the building dedicated was on August 24, 1866, at which time the interior had not yet been painted, but it appears that it had been fully planned as indicated in a note Wise wrote in The Israelite (Sept. 28, 1866) after the building was dedicated:

I would here, however, respectfully remind and impress upon the congregation that, although much has been accomplished, a most important part remains to be done, in order to entirely complete the edifice. I allude to the fresco painting, with reference to which the whole idea of the building has been conceived, and without which the whole interior must remain, comparatively, cold, lifeless and unfinished. It is but justice to the architect to state that, during the entire progress of the work, he has never once lost sight of this important feature, and that over the most trifling detail has been designed with strict reference to the final decoration of the interior in color. When this is accomplished, when those raised bands which form such a marked feature in the building, shall be filled with golden texts from our Sacred Scriptures. When these walls, now so bare, shall glow with patterns of light, and warmth, and color. Then will the great work be entirely completed. Then will it be worthy of the motto its glorious prototype.
Palais que les Genies
int derle come un reve, it rempil et harmoniu."
The quote at the end of Wise's note is from Victor Hugo, but was quoted in a fuller version on the frontispiece of Owen Jones's Alhambra, which suggests that indeed, there was a copy in Cincinnati. Isaac Wise or his printer seems to have mangled the original French. The Hugo/Jones quote reads: 

L'Alhambra ! l'Alhambra palais que les Génies Ont doré comme un rêve et rempli d'harmonies

(Frederica McRae's translates as: The Alhambra! The Alhambra! Palace that genius Has gilded like a dream and filled with harmony)

Wise would continue to refer to the building throughout his life as an "Alhambra Temple," fully endorsing the "glorious prototype" of the design.

Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. Inscription of side aisle arch is from Micah 7:20, "You will show the truth to Jacob, and loving mercy to Abraham". Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. The chandeliers were originally gas, but were changed to electric in 1898. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
It was only in 1874 that funds were available to engage Wenceslas Thien to decorate the interior, and the stencil painting was redone by Raphael and Charles Pedretti in 1890, and again by Raphael Pedretti from 1907 to 1914. No doubt the use of coal heating - changed to gas in 1911 - greatly contributed to the need to regularly brighten the wall paintings. The interior was again fully restored and repainted in 1995 by EverGreene Painting Studios.

So looking at the dazzling interior today it is not quite clear exactly what was envisioned in the 1860s. Still, it is assumed that Wilson and Wise intended the decoration much as it was executed and subsequently restored, as so much of the architectural detail is designed to accept and expand the intensive repetitive patterning.

Wise had written after the opening of the the temple that "the raised bands which form such a marked feature in the building shall be filled with golden texts from our Sacred Scriptures...these walls...shall glow with patterns of light, and warmth and color. Then will the great work be entirely completed." When the time came Wise choose the passages to be inscribed and one of the teachers from the Talmud Yelodim Institute drew the Hebrew letters for the artists to fill in.

The many domes and their decoration are a highlight of both the architectural and decorative design.There are thirteen sanctuary domes. Those in the side aisles and transepts have skylights. The painting conservators of the 1990s used 135 different stencil designs for the sanctuary composition.

Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. The interior was first painted by Wenceslas Thien in 1874. The decoration of the many domes are a highlight of the design. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. The interior was first painted by Wenceslas Thien in 1874. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017
It is likely that stained glass windows were also planned from the start but possibly added later (as was often the case with religious buildings). Some - including the great Decalogue over the ark, may date from the 1890s, when as similar stained glass Decalogue was installed in Temple Emanuel in New York. I'll write more about the stained glass in an upcoming post.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. Detail of sanctuary stained glass. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. Detail of sanctuary stained glass. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple. James Keys Wilson, architect, 1866. Detail of sanctuary stained glass. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

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