Thursday, March 10, 2022

Happy Birthday Architect Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908)


Happy Birthday Architect Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908)

Today is the 199th birthday of Leopold Eidlitz, the first known Jewish-born architect to practice in the United States.

New York architect Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908), was America's first Jewish architect and a founding member of the American Institute of Architects. He was one of the titans of 19th-century American architecture. Though his work was much admired in his time it is mostly forgotten today. Most of his works are destroyed, but his is still storngly felt. His organic approach to architecture laid the foundation for H.H. Richardson and his followers and his style innovations for synagogues transformed American Jewish architectural identity.

In 2008, Kathryn E. Holliday published the excellent study of the architect’s life and work:  Leopold Eidlitz: Architecture and Idealism in the Gilded Age. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008)

Eidlitz was born in Prague, and then moved to Vienna where he trained at the Vienna Polytechnic (probably in engineering), before arriving in America at age 20 in 1843. Eidlitz came from a Jewish family, though in America he neither confirmed nor denied his Jewish upbringing. He worked briefly for Richard Upjohn and then formed a partnership by 1847 with German architect Otto Blesch. The two were soon workong on both church and synagogue commissions, using the Romanesque and Gothic styles.

Eidlitz married Harriet Amanda Warner, the (non-Jewish) daughter of architect Cyrus Warner, for whom he'd worked at one time (and who is the architect of record for Charleston's KKBE synagogue). The young architect obviously maintained relations with New York's Jewish community and undertook several important synagogue commissions. These include the fine Romanesque style Wooster Street Synagogue for Congregation Shaary Teffila of 1847 that he designed with Blesch. This building may be the introduction of the Romanesque style to American synagogue design. 

New York, NY.  Shaaray Tefila (The Wooster Street Synagogue). Otto Blesch and Leopold Eidlitz, architects, 1847.

About this same time Eidlitz also  designed his first building in what would be later known as the Moorish style. This was his fantasy mansion for impresario P. T' Barnum. Called "Iranistan," and it was obviously inspired by the Brighton Pavilion in England. This was an exotic, and therefore recreational style, not yet associated with synagogue architecture. Twenty years later (1866-68), however, Eidlitz's design (with Henry Fernbach) for the grand Temple Emanu-El, helped establish the Moorish style in American Jewish life. Today, though demolished, that building is probably Eidlitz's best known.

Bridgeport, CT. P. T. Barnum House Iranistan, Leopold Eidlitz, architect, 1848. Engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Jan. 2, 1858.

New York, NY.  Temple Emanuel. Eidlitz and Fernbach, architects, 1868. Exterior from Harper's Weekly, November 14 1868. Courtesy of The College of Charleston.
New York, NY.  Temple Emanuel. Eidlitz and Fernbach, architects, 1868. Interior from Harper's Weekly, October 3, 1868. Courtesy of The College of Charleston.

Holliday writes that "It is ironic that Eidlitz, with his professional focus on Christian churches and his own desire to leave his Jewishness in the past, became most identified with a synagogue." (p 78). Fortunately, Prof. Holliday places her discussion of the synagogues in the context of his church designs, which make them seem both more common, and at the same time exceedingly original and even exotic.

There are too few Eidlitz buildings surviving.  In New York City, the most impressive are St. George's Episcopal Church at Stuyvesant Square (1846-49) and the New York County (Tweed) Courthouse (1861-81).

New York, NY. St. George's Episcopal Church, Blesch & Eidlitz, architects, 1846-49. from Architectural Record, September 1908

NY, NY. Broadway Tabernacle, 34th & 6th Ave., decorated for Christmas. Leopold Eidlitz, architect, 1858.  And why is a Magen David part of the decorations? Photo from Holliday, Leopold Eidlitz (2008), p.94.

1 comment:

Bernice said...

Great drawings! Thank you for sharing these along with the fine bio.