Thursday, May 16, 2019

USA: Seattle's De Hirsch Sinai, a Suburban-style Mountain, Cave and Tent for an Urban Congregation

Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019
Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016
Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016
USA: Seattle's De Hirsch Sinai, a Suburban-style Mountain, Cave and Tent for an Urban Congregation
by Samuel D. Gruber 

In the past few weeks I've visited two very different - and very important - mid-century modern synagogue "mountains": Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Temple de Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, for which B. Marcus Pritica was consulting architect. Wright's work is certainly more known than that Pritica's. In Seattle, I only walked past the Temple exterior, but I had a good look inside a few years ago. What follows is a discussion of that remarkable - but little known - mid-century synagogue  based on my 2016 visit. I'll follow up soon with an account of my top to bottom tour of Wright's Beth Sholom.

I recently wrote about some surviving former synagogue buildings in Seattle's' Yesler Way neighborhood. Not far away in, in the Capitol Hill Neighborhood stands the still extant and very active Temple De Hirsch Sinai, the city's largest synagogue, a Reform Temple founded in 1899 and today the largest Reform Congregation in the Pacific Northwest. The current sanctuary at 16th Avenue and Pike Street, adjacent to a 1920 buildings and continuous to the lot of the demolished 1908 sanctuary, was opened in 1960. At the time it was still a bold work of modernism in Seattle, and even today the structure is markedly different than most religious buildings. 

Two years ago, I wrote about the commemorative plaza built on the site of the congregation's 1908 building, which was demolished in 1993 after efforts to preserve it as a concert hall failed. By that time the new Temple DeHirsch sanctuary a mid-century modernist mountain, had already been standing for more than thirty years, dominating the other side of the same continuous synagogue property.

Paradoxically, preference for mid-century modernism was already on the wane when the congregation took down the 1908 structure. Increasingly, congregation were craving many of the older flourishes that that building had provided – smaller worship space, natural light, variation in wall texture and color, and visual stimulation. Taste change with every generation. The success for post-modernism in architecture and the nascent historic preservation movement shifted architectural focus in the 1990s. In Seattle the city was working hard to revive Pioneer Square, the oldest extant part of the city.

Now, thirty years later, tastes have changed again, and the mid-century modernism of De Hirsh Sinai is back in vogue – at least in part (I deciate this post to my colleagues on the Synagogue Moderne Facebook Group). Younger generations seem to like the style – in least in theory. But a smaller and more dispersed younger Jewish population is not affiliating with these mega-temples as they once were, so the future of most are jeopardy.  This is part due to demographics and location. Younger Jews are leaving the suburbs for the cities.
DeHirsch Sinai is something of an anomaly. Its design is entirely in keeping with the big mid-century Temples of the suburbs, but it is entirely urban in location. Not only that, it is urban in what may be the most popular re-location city in America. Though young people raised in Seattle may go elsewhere, there is a constant stream of newcomers, and some at least of these young tech titans are Jewish. Conventional wisdom has it that young single people do not affiliate much with synagogues, but they do when then marry have children. I don’t know what the trend is at DeHirsch Sinai, but when I toured the place with a young rabbi a few years ago, he seemed excited about the level of younger participation and the Temple had an active program of outreach based in the city, and also in their affiliated facility in Bellevue.

Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Ceiling. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
John Detlie (1908-2005) and Raymond Peck were the architects of record for the new Temple, and B. Marcus Pritica (1889-1971) was consulting architect. Given his long history as a thetaer designer, it is likely that Pritica gave the general concept, and the Detlie and Peck worked out the details. Pritica had designed a sparkling mosiac Ark for his first synagogue (Bikur Cholim) way back in 1914, and had specialized in theater design for decades. But Detlie had been a art director and set designer for MGM from 1937 to 1942 - so it is hard to know who designed the  monumental and dazzlingly theatrical Ark and other interior decoration.

Like many large synagogues of this period, the sanctuary looks best when ti is empty (totally awesome!) or entirely filled. A small crowd just makes the space loom larger, sucking the humanity out of religious worship. For this reason many congregations have added large chapels to their more monumental sanctuaries - in order to create more intimate spaces for small crowds and varied purposes. But the central location, the large enveloping tent-like space comes alive when filled. In the last year especially, the sanctuary became a place of community gathering, refuge, mourning and commemoration after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last October, when the sanctuary and plaza outside were filled and the meaning of a synagogue as a Beit-haKnesset - a place of gathering - was fulfilled.

Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai. Vigil on October 19, 2018, after shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh. Photo: Rich Smith.
Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai. Vigil on October 19, 2018, after shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh. Photo: Alex Garland/CHS.
Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai. Vigil on October 19, 2018, after shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh. Photo: KOMO.
The Temple was very much a building of its time. The architects were either inspired by or competing with (or both) Frank Lloyd Wright's Temple Beth Shalom in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, which opened in 1959. Wright's building has been called a new Mount Sinai (albeit in glass and plastic). Pritica, Detlie and Peck had to make a new mountain - and they succeeded with a design in which the new sanctuary looks a bit like Devil's Tower on the outside, but also surely recalls Mount Sinai - and perhaps those peaks of more close-by-Seattle mountains: Ranier and Baker. Unlike Wright's Temple, however, which is a mountain of light, Temple De Hirsch Sinai is a mountain on the outside, but something of a cave within. The only natural light is filtered through think stained glass windows at ground level. This experience is entirely insular. Once in the sanctuary the rest of the world does not exist. Wright through his use of glass and plastic created a light-filled, space, and Pritica, Detlie and Peck created a space apart this world, where attention in the sanctuary was entirely internalized. Wright had just died at age 94 when Beth Sholom was completed. Both Wright and Pritica had long successful careers - and Wright's achievement- and the praise it garnered - might have been especially meaningful to the 71-year-old Pritica.

Elkins Park, PA. Temple Beth Sholom. Frank Lloyd Wright, architect, 1953-1959. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019

Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2019
Seattle, Washington. Mount Ranier seen from Smith tower. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016
Prtiica seems to be given credit for the main design, but I do not know the details of the process. Prtiica had a long career in theater design and had built synagogues in Seattle as early as 1915. But Detlie also had an impressive career that included a stint as a Hollywood art director, so it is likely that the two joined forces on the interior design.

The building represented a clear break from the past when it was built and epitomized the architectural preferences of the late 1950s and 1960s, when big ahistorical, abstract, and/or symbolic forms were deemed most appropriate for new synagogue design. Large awesome spaces – often tent-like in form – took precedence of intimate and highly detailed spaces.

The structure in the Temple De Hirsch Sinai sanctuary brings to mind a the framework of a tent, with the skin wrapped around. The tent was a common motif at the time - recalling the Mishkhan in the the desert and the basic nomadic nature of Diaspora Judaism - something clearly evident in Seattle where Judaism had pushed to the final American frontier on the short of the Pacific Ocean. The Biblical tent could not be further from the historicist styles of Old- World Europe. Gavriel Rosenfeld and others have written that the popularity of modernism must have some roots in the trauma of the Holocaust, and this is certainly true, but I have also often maintained that the main trends of American synagogue modernism already have architectural roots in the Byzantine style, Art Deco, and proto-modernist designs of the inter-war period. As far as the interior structure of De Hrish Sinai, it may have been influence by the 1957 publication of Wooden Synagogues, or it might be part of the architectural Zeitgeist, since Seattle-based architect Pietro Belluschi uses similar forms in some of his churches and synagogues, perhaps most dramatically in Brith Kodeshin Rochester, New York, not complected until 1963.


Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Ceiling. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
Rochester, NY. Temple B'rith Kodesh. Pietro Belluschi, architect, 1963. Photo: Paul Rocheleau, 2020.
This was a period of delight in new technologies and cheap energy. Enclosed interiors depended almost entirely on artificial light, sound amplification through microphones and speaker systems, and substantial mechanical assistance for ventilation, heating and cooling. Natural light only filters in to the sanctum from the ground level, where a ring stained glass windows and decorative metal grates carry the superstructure. The idea may come from Erich Mendelsohn's Park Synagogue in Cleveland dedicated in 1953, but the effect is quite different, because in Cleveland the view is clear, and the great dome seems to float on light. In Seattle, the openings are busy, and function more as decorative base or border.

These screens should also be considered in relation to the articulation of the Ark wall, where a large screen surrounds a monument wall in the shape of the Tables of the Commandments against which the Ark itself is place. By 1960 such decorative screens were becoming increasingly common in large sanctuaries as a way to stitch together the lower and higher parts of the space - uniting as it were -e earth and heaven. There is a long architectural history of these types of screens in ritual spaces that will have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say we find screens and grilles in ancient synagogues, as well as those from the Ghetto period - but at least in the latter case - as in Amsterdam or Venice - the screens were designed to separate men and women.

Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Ceiling. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Ceiling. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
Seattle, Washington. Temple De Hirsch Sinai, 16th Avenue and Pike Street. Ceiling. Detlie and Peck, architects; B. Marcus Pritica, consulting architect, 1960. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2016.
Baltimore, Maryland. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Sanctuary, ark wall. Percival Goodman, architect, 1948.
Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue, sanctuary. Erich Mendelsohn, architect, 1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau, 2002.
Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue, sanctuary. Erich Mendelsohn, architect, 1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau, 2002.
Baltimore, Maryland. Oheb Shalom. Walter Gropius and Sheldon Leavitt, architects, 1960. Photo: Sussman-Oches in Kampf, Contemporary Synagogue Art, p. 36

Thanks to Rabbi Aaron Meyer and Librarian Toby Harris for showing me around Temple De Hirsch Sinai back in December 2016. I look forward to a return visit.

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