Friday, May 9, 2014

USA: America's First Post-WWII Expressionist Synagogue? Erno Fabry and Texas (Jewish) Modernism

Fort Worth,  Texas. Beth-El Congregation, 2nd building (1920).  Interior redesigned by Erno Fabry, 1946-47.  Photo: Courtesy of the Beth El Congregation Archives

America's First Post-WWII Expressionist Synagogue?  Erno Fabry and Texas (Jewish) Modernism
by Samuel D. Gruber

One unexpected Texas treat was finding at the stunning recent (2000) Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth a careful and considerable effort to preserve many elements from the congregation's previous building, erected in 1920 and substantially rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1946.   This is evident even before one even enters the new building complex. Large limestone menorahs that adorned the old brick building are now affixed to the exterior of the new building, flanking the entrance gates.  Inside, there is also a history alcove that preserves parts of the earlier stained glass, the entire ark from the remodeled synagogue, and other building memorabilia.

Ft. Worth, Texas. Beth-El Congregation, 2nd building (1920).  Photo courtesy of Hollace Weiner, Beth-El congregation Archives.

Ft. Worth, Texas. Beth-El Congregation, 3rd building.  Hahnfeld Hoffer  Stanford Architects (2000). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

This ark, like the other elements of the 1946 redesign, was the work of Jewish émigré designer Erno Fabry (born Erno Fay Friedmann) in what is now Košice, Slovakia, in 1906 (or 1907 or 1908).  Fabry had recently set up an office in Dallas, and he was already an active furniture and interior designer in Texas.  He was an important modernist who designed in the post-World War II decades.  I don't know if his work is included in the new exhibition Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, but it should be.

The Beth-El synagogue interior redesign combined Art Deco, expressionist and modernist features that would shortly be developed more fully in the architecture of Erich Mendelsohn and others.  Košice, where Fabry was raised, was then Kashau, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but Fabry, the son a middle-class Hungarian Jewish family, came of age during a period of Czechoslovak political nationalism and artistic modernism including Czech cubism and expressionism, and wide-spread adoption of Bauhaus principals.

Bratislava, Slovakia. Orthodox Synagogue, Heydukova Street. Artur Szalatnai, architect, (1923).  An example of Czechoslovak expressionist design, probably known to Fabry.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2005

Freidmann changed his middle name to Fabry and he graduated from the Czech Technical University in Prague in 1930, at which time he was already proving himself as a designer of furniture and interior design.  He was also a strong graphic artist and involved in theater design.  Fabry's father was in the wood milling business, and presumably that is where Erno got his early training in wood - a material he favored all his life.  This early part of Fabry's career is traced in the valuable catalog to an exhibition of his work at the Evergreen Museum & Gallery at The Johns Hopkins University in 2009.

Fabry's ark wall for Temple Beth-El is of reddish Colorado Travertine (not wood as mistakenly reported in the Evergreen catalog).  Fabry allowed the grain to create a design of undulating vertical lines that subtly reinforces the lines of the ark.  The ark itself from Fabry's 1946-47 redesign is of luminous Colorado travertine and delicate but dynamic metal work for ark door.  Today, it is installed in the history room at the new Beth El, where its monumental character is emphasized.  The ark door has served as a model for the new gates to the synagogue. The stone frame of the ark recalls Art Deco examples, but the bent lintel also echoes the playful expressionism found in Czech cubist designs. 

Ft. Worth, Texas. Beth-El Congregation, 3rd building (2000). History room. The ark is from Fabry's 1946-47 redesign of the ruined 1920 synagogue.  The stone and metal work emphasize the monumental character of the ark.  The Ark door has served as a model for the new gates to the synagogue (see above).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

 Ft. Worth, Texas. Beth-El Congregation, 3rd building (2000).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Friedmann came to the United States in 1938, apparently to work at the American Wood Council, possible on a grant on because he won a competition.  Soon he was also working for leading designer Norman bel Geddes, assisting with designs for the 1939 New York World's Fair.  His family, left behind in Košice, perished in the Holocaust. In 1942 Friedmann volunteered for the U.S. Army, and attained U.S. citizenship.  He participated in the North African and Italian campaigns, and the invasion of Normandy.  Around this time he adopted Fabry as his last name.

After the war, for reasons unknown, Fabry was attracted to Texas, where he established an office in Dallas and found work developing displays and product lines for the American Furniture Company, a home furnishing business founded in 1935 by fellow Czech Jewish émigré, Emanuel Blaugrund.  In 1949 Fabry designed a seven-story store for Blaugrund in El Paso.  Fabry also worked for the Dallas-based Jewish-owned Neiman Marcus department store, and for Meacham's in Fort Worth. in the following years his business grew to include big stores in Kansas, Wisconsin and the Fort Worth furniture maker A. Brandt Company.

According to Beth-El archivist Hollace Weiner, Fabry "did work in El Paso for the Amstatter brothers. They bought Meacham’s in Ft Worth, moved to FW, and joined the Temple.  Because of the Amstatters, the Temple approached Fabry, or so I was told."   Weiner thinks that he probably renovated Meacham’s Department Store the same time he was working on Beth-El, though the exact dates of work would have to be compared.  This type of multi-tasking for architects was common, especially when working on less remunerative commissions like synagogue designs.  For example, Henry Hornbostel worked on Pittsburgh's Rodef Shalom while he engaged building Carnegie-Mellon and Detroit's Albert Kahn used the same workmen (and many of the same details) on the the Fisher Building and the contemporary Temple Beth El

Given Fabry's local success, it is not surprising that when Fort Worth's Beth El Congregation decided to rebuild its synagogue interior after a devastating fire in August 1946, they chose Fabry to do it.  Besides the Ark wall, the most distinctive feature of the interior redesign was the ceiling, where a large Jewish star floated in an undulating opening, lit from the sides.   A Jewish star inscribed in a synagogue dome was nothing new.  There are many examples from the 1920s, such as the one I show here from the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, so it is impossible to identify the inspiration for Fabry or the Beth El building committee.  It is a big stretch, but I would like to think that Fabry might have been aware of the important modernist synagogue in Zilina, Slovakia, designed by Peter Behrens in 1928 (I am sure Erich Mendelsohn knew it).  The comparison may not seem obvious, but Behrens erected a big floating dome, decorated by a star design (now being restored).  Fabry's "dome" was  flat, too.  Fabry seems to have done something similar in his interior for Meacham's.  The edge of the recessed dome is just visible in an old photo, shown below. 

Brooklyn, NY. East Midwood Jewish Center.  Louis Allen Abramson, architect (1929).  Recessed/raised stained glass window with Jewish Star was common at the time. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2007

Zilina, Slovakia. Neolog synagogue. Peter Behrens, architect (1928). Photo: before 1939, from Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe, p 309
Ft. Worth, Texas. Meacham's Department Store, redesigned women's shoe department by Erno Fabry, ca. 1946. 
Photo from Modernism at Evergreen: Erno Fabry (2009)
 Ft. Worth, Texas. Beth-El Congregation, remodeling of earlier synagogue (1946-47).  Ceiling decoration (destroyed).  Erno Fabry, architect. Photo courtesy of Beth-El Congregation Archives.

Recessed lighting dotted the rest of the ceiling in a seemingly irregular pattern , perhaps emulating night sky stars.  Since this style of lighting is more typical of the 1960s, its dating needs to be confirmed.  Elegant aluminum menorahs were fastened to the ark wall.

In 1950, Fabry moved permanently to New York, where he founded Fabry Associates, Inc. in 1950, and in 1952 his glass-topped walnut table was included in the Museum of Modern Art's  permanent design collection.  Fabry closed his studio in 1971, after which he focused on sculpture and painting until his death in 1984.  

Thanks to Hollace Weiner who made me aware of Fabry's contribution, and has kindly made some necessary corrections to this account.

No comments: