Tuesday, June 12, 2018

USA: Woonsocket, Rhode Island's Remarkable Tent of Meeting, of Concrete and Colored Glass

Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962.
USA: Woonsocket, Rhode Island's Remarkable Tent of Meeting, of Concrete and Colored Glass
by Samuel D. Gruber

Next week I will join a group art historians, historians, preservation planners, and Jewish community members on a visit to the remarkable B’Nai Israel synagogue in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The synagogue was designed by Boston-based Jewish modernist Samuel Glaser (1902-1983), who had previously built Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts.

B'nai Israel was dedicated on September 16, 1962. The synagogue is a little known modern American masterpiece, in which Glaser's expressive concrete architecture structure serves as a frame for a dazzling set of enormous triangular stained glass compositions by Israeli artist Avigdor Arikha (1929-2010). Now the future of the building is uncertain.

George Goodwin, who wrote the definitive article of Glaser and the synagogue in Rhode Island History (58:1, Feb. 2000), described the building fully. He wrote in part:
"As he had with Temple Shalom in Newton, Glaser devised an essentially symmetrical plan. The sanctuary and auditorium, bi­sected by a vestibule, form one long pavilion; when the sanctuary's 260 seats are occupied, 400 folding chairs can be placed in the auditorium. A garden court­yard, called a Court of Festivals, is reached through sliding glass doors. The corridor around the courtyard leads to a lounge, a kitchen, six classrooms, offices, a library, and a chapel. Most of these rooms face the courtyard; a few face a rear parking lot. These interiors are uncluttered, bright, and cheerful. The synagogue's lower level— reached from the vestibule by a grand curving staircase beneath crystal chande­liers, or via a rear staircase (there is no elevator)—contains a vast central space surrounded by kitchens, food service areas, cloakrooms, lounges, and exhibi­tion cases forming a small museum.
B'nai Israel combines a rich variety of materials and textures. The main pavilion is reinforced concrete, decorated at its north­ern and southern ends by polychromed brick. Dark woods are used for hallway paneling and overhead beams. The corri­dor outside the chapel is clad with white marble. At the top of the corridor wall, inscribed in Hebrew, is the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Beneath, in neat rows, are the names of deceased congregants..."
The sanctuary was further embellished by a parochet and other textiles designed by Anni Albers (1899-1994). The synagogue also has notable artwork by Ludwig Wolpert (1900-1981), and a bimah design by Glaser's colleague Antonio de Castro (1930-2017). The architect himself donated an outdoor sculpture of a Burning Bush Menorah by Beverly Pepper (b. 1922), that is an early work by the artist who has gone on to fame for her monumental works.

The best images of the synagogue are by Louis Davidson and can be found here at https://www.synagogues360.org/gallery/bnai-israel/.

Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962.
I've only seen this building in pictures, and thanks to distinguished scholar of (medieval) stained glass Madeline Caviness, I now have much better images of the windows - and I look forward to seeing these up close, and even more photographic documentation.  Prof. Caviness will be there on July 19th, too, as will George Goodwin. 

While I reserve final judgement until I fully experience the space and structure of B'nai Israel - I am sure I'll be mightily impressed. The building is related to a significant group of important mid-century synagogue designs related in time, materials, expressive language and architectural and congregational aspirations. But it does appear to me that B'nai Israel is especially comparable to Minoru Yamasaki's much larger North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois, completed in 1963, but under designe at the same time. Both buildings appear to be broadly based on the concept of the Mishkhan (Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting) described in Exodus as the first designed religious space of the Israelites. The Mishkhan is described in modular terms, mostly as a framework (Exodus 15-25). The idea of a temporary tent of meeting, erected in the desert for wandering people, had great appeal in the post-World War II period, especially in the combined context of post-Holocaust communal trauma and the widespread American exodus of Jews from cities to rapidly expanding suburbs. While in the late 19th-century American Jews focused on the idea of the Temple, and Reform Jews felt comfortable enough in their new American home to call the synagogue "Temples," and (as I have written elsewhere) to happily adapt Greco-Roman temple forms for synagogue architecture.

Glencoe, Illinois. North Shore Congregation Israel. Minoru Yamasaki, architect, 1964. Photo: Paul Rocheleau.
Glencoe, Illinois. North Shore Congregation Israel. Minoru Yamasaki, architect, 1964. Photo: Paul Rocheleau.
In addition to Yamasaki's influence, Goodwin has rightfully pointed out  the relationship of Glaser's use of concrete, especially in the sanctuary ceiling beams, to work by Marcel Breuer. Similarly, there is a correspondence in the position and form of B'nai Israel's entrance vestibule to Philip Johnson's design at Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel, in Port Chester, New York, though overall Glaser's work is quite different than Johnson's. B'nai Israel is dynamic and expressive; Kneses Tifereth Israel is rational and cool.

The future of Glaser's B'nai Israel is uncertain. The Woonsocket Jewish community is now tiny, and even in 1962 when the synagogue was dedicated the community was at its peak. It never grew into the excessive seating capacity of the new synagogue.Today, the building is need of repair, but it is not clear how much and how urgently.

Like so many other important religious buildings of the 1950s and 1960s, B’nai Israel now suffers from changing demographics, and changing tastes and style in religious worship, and unfortunately, B'nai Israel has been and remains too little known. It was not included in Richard Meier's seminal 1963 Jewish Museum exhibition Recent American Synagogue Architecture, and thus lost the chance to be recognized by a wider audience in succeeding decades, and the catalogue of that exhibit subsequently became a primer and guide to significant modern synagogue design. I greatly regret that i perpetuated B'nai IsraeI's isolation by not including it in my 2003 Rizzoli book, American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (Beth El in Providence, Rhode Island's other great modern synagogue, did make it in).

Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design. Arikha's signature on the glass, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962. Photo: Louis Davidson.

Glaser's architecture remains impressive today bit it is the brilliance of the Arikha's thirty stained glass windows that draws the most attention. Good win writes that:
"... the sanctuary and auditorium's thirty stained-glass windows may be the finest ensemble in a modern American synagogue. Perhaps the architect thought about this medium in terms of his own name, although glass has meant something altogether different—and horrifying—to world Jewry since Kristallnacht in 1938."
And the great scholar of Jewish art Ziva Amishai-Maisels, professor emerita at Hebrew University, has recently written that:
"I have written about Arikha in my book, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts and have always found him to be a fascinating and very important artist. The windows are one of his last and most successful forays into abstract art and should be preserved at all costs, whether in a synagogue, museum or any public place available, not only for their historical importance but for their beauty. They are not only important in a Jewish or Israeli context, but internationally, as he was an internationally renowned artist, starting from his abstract stage."
But it seems clear that that power of the windows is in large part because of their number  and their setting within their architectural frame. These enormous windows are not easily moved - and if they would be it is not c;ear they would maintain their power.  At next week;s meeting will explore as many options as we can imagine for the survival of the buildings and its windows.

We hope that this discussion is not too late. Other important modern synagogues have been torn down and as I write this, I learn from Brad Kolodny that Temple Emanu-El in East Meadow, Long Island, built in 1957 and designed by Davis, Brody and Wisniewski is soon to be demolished. Temple Emanu-El, of which I will write more, was of the synagogues prominently featured in the 1963 Jewish Museum exhibit.

Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect, 1962.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island. B'nai Israel Synagogue. Samuel Glaser, architect; Avigdor Arikha, stained glass design, 1962.


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