Wednesday, June 27, 2018

USA: Last Days for Modern Icon as Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow, NY Closes

East Meadow, Long Island, New York. Temple Emanu-El sanctuary. Davis, Brody & Wisniewski. 1963. Photo: Brad Kolodny 2018.
East Meadow, Long Island, New York. Temple Emanu-El sanctuary. Davis, Brody & Wisniewski. 1963. Photo: Brad Kolodny 2018.
USA: Last Days for Modern Icon as Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow, NY, Closes
by Samuel Gruber

Brad Kolodny, who has been busy for the past few years photographing the synagogues of Long Island, New York, reports that the sanctuary at Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, New York, was deconsecrated at a service on June 10th. The round sanctuary built in 1957 was designed by the innovative and influential architectural firm of Davis, Brody & Wisniewski. It was featured in the 1963 exhibit Recent American Synagogue Architecture at The Jewish Museum, curated by Richard Meier. The catalog of the exhibit became something of handbook for modern synagogue design in subsequent decades.

East Meadow Long Island, New York. Temple Emanu-El sanctuary. Davis, Brody & Wisniewski, 1963. Page from catalog of Recent American Synagogue Architecture at The Jewish Museum, curated by Richard Meier.
Temple Emanu-El was strikingly different and noteworthy in its day but has fallen into disrepair, and the now-smaller congregation has merged with Temple B'nai Torah in nearby Wantagh, and has now moved to that congregation's building. A recent story from the Long Island Herald discusses  the merger, but nothing is said of the building or its architectural design and significance. 

The road to a new beginning: Temple Emanu-El officially merges with Temple B'nai Torah (June 14, 2018).

 "Although June 10 marked the closing of Temple Emanu-El, it also was the beginning of a new congregation, and Bar-Nahum said, “There’s no break in between our community’s existence....After the last religious service in East Meadow, nearly 200 congregants marched in the heat for 3.8 miles to their new home at Temple B’nai Torah, with dozens taking turns carrying the Torah."

East Meadow Long Island, New York. Temple Emanu-El sanctuary, plan. Davis, Brody & Wisniewski, 1963. Detail from catalog of Recent American Synagogue Architecture at The Jewish Museum, curated by Richard Meier.
East Meadow Long Island, New York. Temple Emanu-El sanctuary, plan. Davis, Brody & Wisniewski, 1963. Detail from catalog of Recent American Synagogue Architecture at The Jewish Museum, curated by Richard Meier.
Temple Emanu-El is one of several innovative modern synagogues designed by Davis, Brody & Wisnieski in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their Congregation Sons of Israel in Lakewood, New Jersey (1963) is also well known and influential. Both of these buildings experimented with new geometries for the sanctuary. At East Meadow, where they used a circular plan, they implanted a formal axis on a central plan, much as was done in the early 19th century at Vienna's Stadttempel.
Vienna, Austria. Stattempel or Seitenstettentempel as seen in a lithograph by Ernst Ehrenhauss. Photo: Genee, Synogogen in Osterreich, fig. 43
Temple Emanu-El at East Meadow was not the only modern sanctuary design that adapted a full or half circle or oval for its form. At Lakewood, the architects chose a traditional American Orthodox seating plan, of Sephardi origin, that expanded the central aisle into a usable space, and had all seating face center. Davis, Brody and Wisniewski wrote in the Jewish Museum catalog that:

Although there is no historical tradition of synagogue design, there are some strong traditions of worship and ritual. Traditionally, the synagogue is different from other places of worship in that it is basically a gathering place for laymen; priests are not required. The most important aspect of the service is the reading and studying of the Torah. We have, therefore, striven to express architecturally this unit of ritual and congregation by designing spaces which have a central orientation, developing from the circle, the square, the octagon, rather than the rectangle. Our aim has been to emphasize the centrality and gathering of the congregation under one roof for worship in contrast to the usual axially directed space which sets up an audience to stage relationship.

Lakewood, New Jersey. Congregation Sons of Israel. Davis, Brody & Wisniewski, 1963. Detail from catalog of Recent American Synagogue Architecture at The Jewish Museum, curated by Richard Meier.

Other leading architects prommoted variations of central plan designs. Eric Mendelsohn at Park Synagogue in Cleveland set his sanctuary under a massive hemispherical dome and Percival Goodman built a band-shell style half dome for this temp Sholom in Miami, where the walls were punctuated with patterned windows filled with brightly-colored solid glass panels, much like those used in East Meadow. Fritz Nathan at the Jewish Community Center of White Plains (now Congregation Kol Ami) designed a sanctuary that was a half oval, and projected from the greater building mass.The windows - now removed -were by leading stained glass artist Robert Sowers.


Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, architect, 1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau 2002.

Miami, Florida. Temple Beth Sholom. Percival Goodman, architect, 1956. Photo: Paul Rocheleau 2002.

White Plains, New York. congregation Kol Ami (former Jewish Community Center of White Plains), 1950s. Fritz Nathan, architect. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2009.

Davis, Brody, Wisniewski connect their East Meadow sanctuary to the rest of the synagogue complex in a new way, however with a long narrow glass enclosed walkway the tethers the round sanctuary to the main buildings as if it was boat on a rope or a balloon on a string. The isolation of the sanctuary in this way allows the maximum expression of its pure geometric form, and also the maximum exposure of its colored windows - inside and out. I'm sure the from without the building must glow with colored light on a Friday night, while it must shimmer with different hues across the bimah and seating at a Saturday morning.

East Meadow Long Island, New York. Temple Emanu-El sanctuary. Davis, Brody & Wisniewski. 1963. Photo:temple Emanu-El website.
The closure of this sanctuary is a loss to modern American Judaism, and if it is demolished - as has been rumored - then it will be a greater loss to modern architecture overall. I hope the building can be re-purposed and saved, preferably as a religious, performance, or meeting space so the integrity of the design can be maintained.

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