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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright in Elkins Park

(from ICON magazine)

When Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen wrote to architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1950s, he said that envisioned a wholly modern “American synagogue, a Mt. Sinai of light…wrought in modern materials.”

The rabbi’s vision produced Beth Shalom of Elkins Park, the soaring concrete and glass building of space age proportions, the great architect’s only synagogue out of at least 1,000 projects. Completed in 1959 shortly after Wright’s death, this year marks the building’s 50th anniversary, an historic milestone for most buildings, but for Beth Sholom an especially important time because for half a century there have been no real restorations to the building save work on the synagogue’s glass ceiling, which has been subject to leaks over the years. This summer Philadelphia’s Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) initiated a new project: the carving out of a Visitor’s Center within Beth Sholom’s Robin Lounge, a heretofore unremarkable space that over the years had been crammed with memorabilia-filled display cases.

“The building is the same age as the Guegiehameim in New York, which was just restored,” says James Kolker, principal at VSBA, who heads the creation of a new Visitor Center within the building. “The project has two components. One is taking a lounge that is used for many different purposes and restoring it. We took out these cases that have been put in it, bring back the original color and appearance. Within that space we added the exhibition components. The display cases were really just dumped there,” Mr. Kolker adds.

Mr. Kolker says his participation in the project has special significance for him because he was Bar Mitzvohed at Beth Sholom some thirty years ago. “There’s a sentimental attachment here,” he says.

VSBA worked with Picture Projects of New York since July to create a Visitors Center that is much more than plaques on a wall. The final product includes interactive videos, exhibits of the architect’s ink drawings, as well as the correspondence between Wright and Rabbi Cohen. A gift shop now sells Wright-related housewares, stationary and jewelry. The project was completed and opened to the public on November 15, 2009.

“Beth Sholom is a living and breathing institution, not a dead historic artifact,” Mr. Kolker says, “but it’s a very inaccessible building for wheelchairs or elderly people because it has steps all over the place, so one of the major structural changes was replacing a little stairway with a ramp.”

Alison Bectal, who founded Picture Projects 13 years ago “to use technology to look at social issues and focus on oral history and story telling from multiple perspectives,” says that part of the interactive history of the synagogue is an 18 minute film in the screening room area, where visitors will see the famous architect at the groundbreaking patting the heads of two little girls in blue coats and red hats.

While not noted for gracious displays of public affection, Mr. Wright certainly enjoyed dressing in opera capes and walking in public parks while swinging his cane to clear pigeons from his path. Children, however, have the power to soften the hearts of even the most hardened architects.

“A family has given us an amazing Super 8 footage of the groundbreaking. These were people driving by and they saw the big happening at Beth Sholom. I don’t think they were congregants. They stopped and got out. They had two adorable girls. Wright saw the little girls and saw a kind of photo op. The film shows Wright patting them on the head,” Ms. Betchal said.

Beth Shalom historian Emily Cooperman says that the history of the synagogue has found its way into myths and legends over the years. “This is not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. “Like all myths there are some grains of truth in there.” One myth in particular blames low flying jets from a nearby military base as being responsible for breaking portions of the synagogue’s glass roof. “There was some concern during construction about jets going overhead. Rabbi Cohen was concerned about that. A couple of years after the dedication, however, a storm or a tornado—they don’t know which—caused the breakage of a number of individual panes of glass. Something also could have hit it, tree branches, or perhaps it was a combination of weather damage, jets and leaks,” she said.

While most Wright buildings have a flaw, compared to the genius of the design they are small, manageable defects. Beth Sholom’s flaw lay in the building’s initial double glazing system that Ms. Cooperman says was covered on the outside by corrugated wire glass, and sand blasted on the inside to make it translucent. The fiberglass panels, which were also part of the original design, did not prevent the building from leaking substantially. As a result, Wes Peters, the Wright office point man and a group of Tallyhassen architects, headed back to Elkins Park to fix the problem. “They designed and installed an internal gutter system between the 2 layers of glazing to correct leaks. It still leaks some,” Ms. Cooperman laughed.

Beth Sholom’s construction might be compared to greenhouse technology. Greenhouses, however, have their drawbacks. “Have you ever been in a greenhouse in summer? Well, it’s the same effect in the synagogue,” Ms. Cooperman tells me, mentioning also that the building’s two sanctuaries ensure that during the long winter and warm seasons, congregants are generally more comfortable in the smaller, underground space. The main sanctuary is too large for regular Sabbath services outside of special holy days. “If you don’t have 1,000 people in that room, it looks funny,” Ms. Cooperman added.

The Robin Lounge, where the new Visitors Center is located, is underneath the main sanctuary. The newly curated exhibit has five components: architecture, the congregation, Rabbi Cohen and his relationship to Mr. Wright, a timeline of events leading up to the building of Beth Shalom, the influence of the building on contemporary architecture, and an oral history of congregants. The Visitors Center is the first stop on all tours of the synagogue.

Rabbi Cohen’s relationship with Mr. Wright began serendipitiously enough when a friend of the Rabbi’s, the dean of the nearby Tyler School of Art, made it known that he was a friend of the famed architect. Rabbi Cohen then wrote a long letter to Mr. Wright, explaining how Judaism was democratic and American in values, and that his desire was to build a “new” American synagogue. “In November, 1953, the two men had a meeting of the minds in New York, and Wright agreed to do the project,” Ms. Cooperman said.

“Rabbi Cohen, who was associated with a synagogue in the Logan neighborhood in North Philadelphia, noticed that around WW II many members were moving to the suburbs like Melrose and Elkins Park. He realized if the synagogue didn’t move, the membership would, so he persuaded the board to move. Lots of congregations were doing the same thing. Rabbi Cohen wanted to ensure this greatness of his congregation into the future.”


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