Monday, June 22, 2009

USA: Pietro Belluschi Designed Swampscott (Massachusetts) Synagogue in Limbo as Town Publishes New RFP

Swampscott, Massachusetts. Sanctuary and social hall of former Temple Israel as they look today.
The seats are not original. the Ark has been removed, as well was two large menorahs formerly situated on the bimah
about where the trees are seen. Photos: Susan Solomon.

Pietro Belluschi Designed Swampscott (Massachusetts) Synagogue in Limbo as Town Publishes New RF
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The future of the former Temple Israel synagogue at 837 Humphrey Street, in Swampscott, Massachusetts, the first of five synagogues designed by renowned modernist architect Pietro Belluschi is in limbo again. The synagogue, designed and built form 1953 to 1956, is one of a group of early post-World War II synagogues that combined simple geometries and expressive forms, animated by the abundant and sometimes directed use of natural light. Belluschi’s designs, like those of Erich Mendelsohn and Percival Goodman introduced a new vocabulary of forms and materials into synagogue architecture.

The Town of Swampscott, which purchased the building from the congregation, which moved and merge with another, in 2006, published a RFP (Request for Proposals) today, indicating it has given up on attempted to adapt the 1953 structure for town use.

There has been strong indication that building would be used as the town police headquarters, with the impressive sanctuary space preserved as a public meeting and cultural space. Now, the RFP calls for proposals to convert the 52,000 square foot synagogue complex for residential use. There are design guidelines in place, but I was unable to obtain these from afar. Most likely, any reuse will maintain the essential mass and profile of the building – which is distinctive because of the large raised drum and dome of the sanctuary, but it is doubtful that sanctuary space would remain intact in a residential conversion.

The reuse report commissioned by the town in 2007 from Reinhardt Associates, Inc. explores several options including residential use. You can read the Reuse Report here. The report found the building to be an ideal candidate for renovation. The site was found to be free of hazardous material, and the costs of demolition and new development on site exceeded adaptive reuse costs.

The Committee overseeing the project found that renovation of the building “is feasible and cost effective. The best use for the building is for police department headquarters, the space requirements of which fit efficiently in the lower level of the facility. The upper floor levels have the benefit of additional usable space for a community center or a cultural arts center or other Town approved uses.” I do not know what has changed in the situation in Swampscott that has derailed the transition to police headquarters. It may just be that in this distressed economy the town has not funds to proceed, and carrying the empty building is, meanwhile, to great a drain on its resources.

Pietro Belluschi and the Building

Temple Israel is one of the many religious buildings designed by Italian-born architect Pietro Belluschi (1899- 1994), who moved to the United States in 1922. He soon afterward began to practice architecture in Portland, Oregon, where he established a leading reputation in both commercial and religious architecture through 1951, when he moved to Massachusetts as Dean of Architecture and Planning at MIT in Cambridge.

While Belluschi’s commercial work is identifiable by his preference of a tightly organized grid structure, in the tradition of Italian rationalism, as in the widely-acclaimed the Equitable Building of Portland (1945-48), his religious buildings are very different. His many religious buildings , including five synagogues, are well documented in Meredith Clausen’s book Spiritual Space: The Religious Architecture of Pietro Belluschi (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1992).

At Temple Israel, where Carl Koch & Associates were project architects, Belluschi utilized for the main synagogue facility an existing substructure that had bee begun and then abandoned for another synagogue, and adjacent to this he built a well-lit domed hexagonal space for the sanctuary – an idea, according to Clausen – first broached by Koch.

According to Clausen:

"The results were new in Belluschi’s work but reflect his personal, rationalized approach to architectural design, with an explicit structural framework of steel and laminated wood beams, richly textured brickwork, and stained redwood. Simple in form, monumental in aspect, yet human in scale, with visual appeal derived from the skillful use of straightforward brick, wood, and stained glass in lieu of applied decoration, Temple Israel exerts a quiet distinction appropriate for its place and purpose."

Abundant natural light fills the sanctuary from the large glazed sides of the 40 foot high drum. Variants of this design were then developed in Belluschi’s synagogue in Merion, Pennsylvania (Temple Adath Israel) and most successfully at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York.

For the most part, these synagogues, like Belluschi’s churches, adapt vernacular and traditional motifs to create comfortable, warm and well-lit community spaces. In contrast to his commercial architecture, Belluschi’s religious buildings look natural and low-tech while still imparting a feel of serene and sometimes even soaring majesty.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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