The members of Beth Sholom — who worship in the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — are stepping forward to tell the story of how their landmark spiritual home was built.
ELKINS PARK, Pa. — Did you hear the one about the rabbi and the architect?
Few people have. Which is why the members of Beth Sholom — who worship in the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright — are stepping forward to tell the story of how their landmark spiritual home was built.
Described as a symbolic Mount Sinai made of concrete, steel and glass, the iconic building somehow never received the attention of more famous Wright designs like Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum. But new public visiting hours might change that.
"It should be better known," said Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker magazine. "The space itself is just magnificent. It's exhilarating. Everything just soars."
The synagogue marks its 50th anniversary this year by establishing a visitors center that will be open three days a week. Previously, appointments were required to see Beth Sholom, although walk-ins sometimes got impromptu tours if a guide happened to be in the building.
From the outside, the pyramid-like roof rises more than 100 feet above the sanctuary. The "shingles" are really panels of corrugated wireglass and fiberglass that filter natural light into the building during the day; at night, the illuminated structure is an ethereal, almost otherworldly sight for motorists driving by.
The six-sided sanctuary represents the cupped hands of God. A multicolored Plexiglas chandelier — Wright called it a "light basket" — is suspended above the nearly 1,100 seats, most of them original. Wright also designed the eternal light over the ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept.
"The Synagogue lives and breathes; it moves with quiet grace and charm; its lights and shadows continually change with the coming of the sun and the passing of a cloud," wrote Mortimer J. Cohen, the rabbi who commissioned the building. "Under the moon it is a silver tower. Sun-touched, it is a golden beacon of brilliant light."
Cohen sought out Wright in 1953 as members of his North Philadelphia congregation increasingly joined the white exodus from the city and began settling around the leafy suburb of Elkins Park.
The unique synagogue design emerged from a combination of Cohen's sketches and a long-shelved Wright design for a "steel cathedral." But construction and financial problems — mostly stemming from the unorthodox design — plagued the project, at times driving Cohen to despair. It was finally finished in 1959, just a few months after Wright's death at age 91. Cohen died in 1972.
The Conservative congregation never sought to promote the building, perhaps because it is an active house of worship and not a museum, said past president Herbert Sachs. But a few years ago, as the synagogue sought National Historic Landmark status, Sachs began to grasp the growing need for regular upkeep and realized the congregation might one day need public help.
Sachs, now president of the synagogue's Preservation Foundation, said while members have done "an outstanding job" of conserving the facility, "it would be a shame for the future of the building to be relying on what the congregation could provide."
Preservation director Emily Cooperman described the sanctuary as structurally similar to "an oversize greenhouse" that is expensive to heat and cool. Any major repairs to the irregularly shaped roof would cost a fortune in scaffolding alone, she said.
And repairs are needed. On a drizzly gray day just before the visitors center dedication, a blue plastic kiddie pool sat in the middle of a sanctuary aisle.
"It leaks," Cooperman said, looking toward the roof. "They came back and retrofitted, but it's never been perfect."
That has been a criticism of other Wright buildings, in part because his designs were ahead of their time, Goldberger said.
"He tended to push the envelope of engineering," said Goldberger. "Builders had trouble keeping up with him."
The synagogue began work on the visitors center around the time it earned landmark designation in 2007. The center is a converted multipurpose room that was part of Wright's original design.
The exhibits feature excerpts of years-long correspondence between the rabbi and the architect, timelines, sketches, touch-screen displays, oral histories of current synagogue members and a documentary. A gift shop offers souvenirs.
Cooperman expects tourism to increase with the new public hours; in recent years, about 5,000 tourists visited annually, most on bus tours, she said.
"That congregation is the custodian of one of the great treasures of American architecture," Goldberger said, "and it's great that they want to share it with more people."
If You Go...
BETH SHOLOM SYNAGOGUE: 8231 Old York Road, Elkins Park, Pa., just outside Philadelphia.
Open Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment. Groups of 10 or more by appointment only. Tours are free to Beth Sholom Synagogue Preservation Foundation members. For nonmembers, admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students, seniors and individuals on group tours of 10 or more. Children under 10 get in free.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
http:www.bethsholompreservation.org or 215-887-1342 ext. 106.