Wednesday, November 24, 2010

USA: Puzzled by Beth Tephilah in Troy, New York

USA: Puzzled by Beth Tephilah in Troy, New York
by Samuel D. Gruber

Troy, New York. Congregation Beth Tephilah. West Facade. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (November, 2010)

In addition to the 1870 Reform Congregation Berith Sholom in Troy, New York, of which I have just written, I was intrigued by the architecture and urban survival of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Tephilah at 82 River Street, right on the southeast corner of Russel Sage College, where it has survived surrounded by parking lots. I have not been inside the building, I haven't found anything in my files, and I haven't yet researched this locally, but the application of a Classical portico on the facade of the otherwise very unclassical building intrigues me. From the outside it looks like an earlier block or two-tower facade has been modified to create a partly classical facade, or perhaps an entirely new facade has been grafted on to the main body of the building. All I've found online are the mention of two dates for the building - 1873 and 1909. Was the congregation founded in 1873? Does the main bulk of the building - which clearly has internal galleries for women - date this early (I don't think so)?

Was the design of the building changed during construction, or was the classical facade added to an earlier building in 1909 to give it a new look? I've just written an article that is coming out in the journal Jewish History in which I make the case that the revival in classicism - especially in making fully formed classical temples for Reform congregations - was part of the broad branding process of Reform Judaism in the period from about 1900 until World War I. After the war, Reform tends to move to new styles, while through the 1920s Conservative and Orthodox congregations more commonly employ classicism in their own way. If any part of Beth Tefilah is from 1909 I'll have to reconsider what is going on. Still, the situation is not unknown. On the Lower East in New York the tiny Stanton Street Shul, built in 1913, also employs classicism on its facade, though little else in the building suggests not the glories of the ancient world of Greece and Rome - but only Galicia, the land of Yiddishkeit.

Troy, New York. Congregation Beth Tephilah. West Facade, Doric Portico . Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (November, 2010)

New York, NY. Congregation Bnai Jacob Anshe Brzezan (Stanton Street Shul). This small shul on the Lower East, built in 1913, also applied classical elements, to an otherwise very unclassical building. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2005

There is another story that needs to be told here, too. Who fought to save this building when everything around it was torn down (in the 1970s?). How has a congregation managed to maintain it since then. Is really used, and how often? What is the future for Beth Tefilah? I can't wait to get inside this shul on my next visit to Troy...and lean more of this history of this congregation and building.

Troy, New York. Congregation Beth Tephilah. South and east sides. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber (November, 2010)

USA: 140-Year Old Berith Sholom in Troy, New York

USA: 140-Year Old Berith Sholom in Troy, New York
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Last weekend I had the pleasure to walk the streets of downtown Troy, New York for a few hours. The Hudson River city located just north of Albany is rich in 19th and early 20th century architecture, including two historic synagogues, the older of which is Congregation Berith Sholom (originally Baris Scholem), at 167 Third Street, founded in 1866 and built in 1870.

Troy, New York. Congregation Berith Sholom. Facade, 1870. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber, 2010.

The building, which has been attributed to Troy architect Marcus Cummings, is the oldest in standing synagogue building in New York State outside of New York City, and the oldest New York Synagogue continuously in use for the same congregation. The congregation was liberal from the beginning, and the Ark was built on the west side of the building lot, and there does not seem to have been a balcony. A more formal adoption of Reform ritual did not take place until 1890. The congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1920. Around 1953 an addition was built to house the religious school. This year, on the occasion of the building's 140th anniversary the congregation launched an Anniversary Expansion Capital Project.

The synagogue is part of the Central Troy Historic District, one of the largest contiguous designated historic districts in the country. Judging from at least one historic photo, the restored facade looks much as it did more than a century ago. The appearance is what I'd call Gilded Age eclectic, but still mostly dependent on mid-century Romanesque and Italianate church forms and architectural details.

Troy, New York. Congregation Berith Sholom, interior.
Photo: Jim Richard Wilson from

The interior is much changed. The stained glass windows date from 1965, and the interior walls were probably once stenciled, perhaps they were painted white when the windows were installed.

The Moorish arch of the Ark links this building with contemporary Reform synagogues of the period. According to congregation lore and explained by Rabbi Debora Gordon it was apparently added some time after the construction of the synagogue and was dedicated to the memory of a young congregant and Harvard sculler (maybe a scholar, too) who died in a boating accident: "A young man of the community died in a boating accident on the Hudson River, and his family donated the Ark as a memorial to him. Behind the ner tamid, where you would ordinarily expect to find words about God or holiness, script letters almost too fancy to read spell out “In memory of Emanuel B. Mount.” The Ark was designed to look like the scull in which he was rowing when he drowned. If you visit our cemetery, you will see on his grave marker a carving of a young man in a long, slim boat." I'm somewhat skeptical of the likening of the Ark to a boat - in photos it doesn't seem too different form some other Arks of the period - but I still have not been inside the synagogue, nor seen the cited inscription, so I reserve judgment until my next visit to Troy.

I wonder what this Ark would have looked like originally? Was it bare wood finished with a high shine? Or was it painted or gilded in rich colors and gold. I'll try to find out, and am happy to hear from any readers who know more about this venerable - but still vital - building.

Troy, New York. Congregation Berith Sholom, Facade with view of site where extension will be built. No side windows are on the northeast corner because an earlier building was there. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2010.

Troy, New York. Congregation Berith Sholom, rear of building showing abutting building. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber, 2010.