Beth Sholom Synagogue, Frank Lloyd Wright 1954

Posted by George Pudlo on January 13, 2012 at 1:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Special thanks to the Beth Sholom Preservation Foundation for providing the photographs.

Beth Sholom Synagogue

8231 Old York Road 

Elkins Park, PA 19027

One might question how a Gentile could have the ability to effectively design a Jewish synagogue, but Frank Lloyd Wright did just that in his modern abstraction of Beth Sholom Synagogue. 

In 1957, Mike Wallace interviewed Frank Lloyd Wright on a number of topics related to his architectural philosophy, including the topic of religion:

Wallace: You write, at some small length any anyway, in your latest book A Testament, published by Horizon Press, you write about your religious ideas. I understand that you attend no church.

Wright: I attend the greatest of all churches.

Wallace: Which is?

Wright: And I put a capital "N" on Nature and call it my church...and that's my church.

Wallace: You uh- Your attitude toward organized religious is... 

Wright: That's what enables me to build churches for other people. 

Wallace: Well I want to...this I do want to understand.

Wright: If I belonged to any one church, they couldn't ask me to build a church for them. But because my church is elemental, fundamental, I can build for anybody a church.

The story of the Beth Sholom Synagogue begins in 1918, with the establishment of the congregation. It was named Beth Sholom -House of Peace in Hebrew - to signify the end of World War I. The congregation was originally based in the Logan section of northern Philadelphia, but moved out to the suburb of Elkins Park after World War II. Wright was commissioned by Rabbi Mortimer Cohen in 1953 to design a new synagogue, after a referral from Boris Blai, the dean of the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Fine Arts of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and master sculptor.  

Blai was a friend of Wright's, and had worked with him on Florida Southern College. He was one of only two living students of Rodin at the time, and spent six weeks sculpting a bust of Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1962, three years after Wright's death, severe coastal storms on the Atlantic swept away Blai's Long Beach Island home, where $45,000 worth of sculptures were housed. All of the sculptures were swept to sea, with the exception of one sculpture -that of Frank Lloyd Wright, which Blai then donated to Florida Southern College. 

The planning of Beth Sholom Synagogue began in 1953, with the final design submitted by Wright in 1954. Rabbi Cohen played an unusually large role in the design process of Beth Sholom. Rabbi Cohen wrote to Wright with admiration of the architect's work, but also with ground rules of how the synagogue should be designed, complete with relevant aspects of Judaism to be incorporated into the synagogue. He envisioned an abstract tribute to Mount Sinai in a triangular formation, symbolic of "the hands of ancient priests, outstretched in blessing".

A number of financial setbacks delayed the construction and completion of Beth Sholom. Frank Lloyd Wright himself attended a fundraiser for Beth Sholom in 1954, a rare move on behalf of the architect. To magnify the financial problem, they were unable to find a Philadelphia contractor who could build the synagogue for less than twice what they were hoping for. As a result, Frank Lloyd Wright contacted Haskell Culwell, the contractor responsible for Wright's Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, who agreed to build the synagogue at their asking price of $750,000. The final price tag was more than this, of course, as Wright typically went well over budget with his projects.

Groundbreaking began in 1955. Construction workers poured concrete in wooden casts on site, fitted with steel reinforcing beams. The steel window frame was erected, not without difficulty, and glass was inserted to create glowing walls, as natural light pours through the walled ceiling. As with the vast majority of Frank Lloyd Wright's projects, the architect was responsible for total design, including the interior furnishings of the 1,030 seat synagogue. The recurring theme throughout Beth Sholom Synagogue is the use of triangles, seen in the overall massing of the building, and in detail throughout.

Beth Sholom is comprised of four primary materials: concrete, steel, glass, and copper. The foundation and lower walls are made of steel reinforced concrete, while the bulk of the building rises in sheer exaltation, with walls of glass and copper converged to form a tent like interior. As stated in the Torah's Book of Numbers 3:8 "They shall keep all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting, and the obligations of the children of Israel, to do the service of the tabernacle."

The Beth Sholom Synagogue was dedicated in 1959, five months after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright, and continues to be an icon of Jewish American Architecture. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, and was singled out by the American Institute of Architects as one of Wright's seventeen most important structures for preservation. 

For information on visiting the Beth Sholom Congregation, visit the Beth Sholom Preservation Foundation.


Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright

Posted by George Pudlo on February 8, 2011 at 8:25 PM Comments comments (2)


State Highway 381

Mill Run, PA 15464

This weekend I had the pleasure of taking a trip to Southern Pennsylvania to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and nearby Kentuck Knob houses. It was a journey and a half. After driving more than 500 miles to Mill Run, a small, small town in the middle of the mountains, I was so excited upon finally seeing the entrance sign for Fallingwater. I pulled into the gravel trail flanked by still leaved trees and moss covered rock piles. When I approached the entrance kiosk, a friendly cashier crushed my dreams and told me that the Fallingwater grounds were closed for the day because of ice buildup down by the house. I was in shock. Did I really just drive over 500 miles to hear these bitter words? I plead my case. No luck. I begged. I groveled. The girl didn't budge and said it wasn't her call to bend the rules. I asked whose call it was and she told me that the grounds security guard would be back shortly and I could talk to him. When I saw him approach the kiosk, I knew I'd be fighting for a lost cause. I tried anyway. I stated my case to the security guard as he repeatedly told me they were closed for the day and that it was just too dangerous to go down by the house as the ground was layered in a sheet of ice and two people slipped earlier that day. I said "Look, I normally don't ask to have the rules bent, but I just drove all the way here from Chicago Illinois, I operate a Frank Lloyd Wright Tour, and NEED to see Fallingwater". The pathetic look on my face must have struck a chord in him, and he told me to park my car to the side, and he would personally drive me down to the house in his truck to take some photos. It was nothing short of a miracle.


The pity driven security guard picked me up and we started our drive to visit Fallingwater in the Laurel Caverns of Pennsylvania. We passed beautiful trees and floral species unseen in the Prairie land of the Midwest. When we arrived at the grounds of Fallingwater I was awestruck. There was something so peaceful and serene about the whole setting. I was finally able to understand why Fallingwater is one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most well known designs. Frank Lloyd Wright said of Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin that the house is built OF the hill not ON the hill -if you build a house on the hill, you lose the hill. I suppose the same applies to Fallingwater. It is not built on the mountain, but of the mountain. As we pulled up to the base of the house, we crossed a small bridge made of the same taupe colored smooth concrete material adorning the cantilevered balconies. The tiny bridge crosses a stream that creates the waterfall coming out of the base of the house, and when looking down from the bridge you can see a small, floating staircase that lowers down from the house to just rest above where the water falls. The two main floors of the house have massive cantilevered balconies that extend over the fall for what I am sure are unbelievable views. As in many of Frank Lloyd Wright's homes, in particular the Laura Gale House in Oak Park comes to mind, there is a strong relationship between solid and void spaces. When viewed at a short distance, the area under the house where the waterfall is located there is a void space, topped by a cantilevered balcony, topped by a void space, topped by another cantilevered balcony, another void space and so on. This intermittent solid/void relationship lends the house a horizontal emphasis. Fallingwater is not a Prairie House, it is not a Usonian House, it cannot be classified by anything but the nature that surrounds it. Fallingwater is organic architecture in the truest sense. It is as if the house grew out of the landscape just like the surrounding trees and foliage. The vertical aspects of the house are the walls and chimney of local stone cut into thin, horizontal slabs.


As we crossed over the tiny bridge and to the rear of the house, we drove under an open faced canopy of timber joints connecting to the rock of the mountain. The bright green, moist moss on the rocks of the home facing the dripping icicles of the rocks clinging to the mountain were in perfect harmony. We were able to drive completely behind and past the house and then up another small path to the guest house located on a ledge directly above the main composition. When viewed from the front, the guest house appears to rest above and upon the house as an extended appendage. From up there we were able to see over the house and into the woods. As we turned around and trekked down the hill to view it from the other side, I was so astounded by how far out the cantilevered balconies protruded over the fall and stream.


The security guard wouldn't let me out of the truck when viewing Fallingwater, but even with the windows open I felt an undeniable connection to nature. The crisp, fresh air on my face, the sounds of the birds and waterfall below, and the smell of the natural, unpolluted air induced a temporary amnesia of the metropolis I live in.


Fallingwater was built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1937 for Edgar J Kaufman of the Kaufman Department Store chain in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a weekend home. I can't imagine being Kaufman and waiting for each weekend to come.


Wright Newsletter


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