The only synagogue designed by the distinguished American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is in Elkins Park, a suburb north of Philadelphia.
Finished in 1959, Beth Sholom, a Conservative shul designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2007, was one of Wright’s last projects.
Considered among his most important works, Beth Sholom is an architectural masterpiece in which the interplay of light, form and space creates an inspiring place of worship.
Today, a model of the synagogue is displayed at the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
The story of its conception and realization is expertly told by Joseph Siry in Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture, a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book published by the University of Chicago Press.
Siry, a professor of art history and American studies at Wesleyan University, says that the shul was essentially a joint venture between Wright and its rabbi, Mortimer Cohen.
Rabbi Cohen, having seen and admired a major retrospective of Wright’s buildings, approached the famous architect at the end of 1953. They worked so closely together that Wright once referred to Rabbi Cohen as the synagogue’s co-designer.
Though they shared the same vision, Wright deferred to Rabbi Cohen on matters of Jewish worship and belief. As Wright’s private adviser and guide, the rabbi skillfully steered him through the thickets of Judaism.
To no one’s surprise, Wright was a star pupil. Praising the architect’s “profound mystical sense of religion,” the rabbi said of him, “I found in Mr. Wright a genuinely spiritual person who responded in his unique way to the great teachings of my religion.”
To Wright, Beth Sholom was not only a monument to Judaism, but a statement about “the modern potential of architecture,” observes Siry.
He adds, “Even today, more than half a century after its dedication, Beth Sholom is a structure without close parallels anywhere. Wright created a work of architecture whose individuality corresponded to the ideal of distinct character that he sought to bestow on his other institutional projects.”
Symbolizing American Jews’ postwar confidence in the United States as an open and tolerant society, Beth Sholom is a splendid pyramid-like building cast in steel and glass.
Siry, in exemplary fashion, explains and extolls Wright’s crowning achievement in this illuminating volume.