Beth Sholom Synagogue (1959)

Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
HW #25

The Beth Sholom Synagogue, located in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, is the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Being one of a kind, the building’s fruition also has an unusual story in comparison to his other buildings. In the post-war period, the Jewish congregation began experiencing a falling out as an increasing number of families started to move out of town. In hopes to bring the community back together, Rabi Mortimer J. Cohen, a respected leader of the community, planned to build a synagogue that reinforced the values of a Jewish American community, an “American Synagogue”. With these ideas in mind, he sought out the help of Frank Lloyd Wright, who he believed was the only one that could bring his dreams into architectural form. In 1953, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design the building, and after a decade of slow construction progress, the synagogue finally came to being. The synagogue still remains in service until today, and offers tours of the building during non-service hours.

The relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright and Rabi Cohen was different than to his many other clients. Perhaps it was his nearing age 90, or the fact that Rabi Cohen did not express the same affection and awe for the world-famous architect as others had, but Rabi Cohen became more of a collaborator rather than client. In crediting the building, Frank Lloyd Wright states that the building was “conceived by Rabi Cohen, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright”. The design of the building was also affected by the “Steel Cathedral” that Wright had designed years earlier, but had never realized. The combination of Wright’s personal style and his unusual collaborative efforts with his client, Rabi Cohen, has allowed fruition of an exceptional structure that embodies the values and symbols of the Jewish faith.

Taking inspiration from the idea of a congregation “in the hands of God,” Wright took the shape of the Rabi’s two upwardly-cupped hands and worked along its geometries. The triangular concrete protrusions on its sides illustrate the two thumbs of the Rabi and the tips of the four fingers form the shape of the V-shaped entrance overhang. The bilaterally symmetrical front façade is marked by its modern, mountain-like shape. (a) The 24 inch thick reinforced concrete base of the first floor tinted in yellow, forms the masonry structure of the building. The structure for the glazed roof is supported by three large steel beams that meet at the peak. (b) (you can imagine how shocked the neighbors were when the three enormous steel beams came up during construction in the 50’s) The rippled glazing consists of the outer layer of glass panels which are colorless, corrugated, patterned with wire held together by steel mullions; and the inner layer, “Structoglas”, which is a type of corrugated off-white fiberglass, sand-blasted to make them translucent. The interior layer, needing less structural support, extends itself to the steel beams and the wood blocking connected to them. While light permeates as it transforms throughout the day, the translucent glazing and the steel structure elaborately shapes the interior space of the main chapel  into awe. (c)

He does not forget to apply his favorite compression and release technique in the synagogue. In contrast to the high, open interior of the chapel, to the right side of the alter is the rabi’s office, which is a small, low-ceiling office. Here, he applies his custom-made windows, chairs with high backs, and angled tables. The recurrence of the geometric triangular shapes in the office and throughout the chapel is unfailingly reminiscent of Wright’s designs.

The building slopes down towards the alter, with all focus being drawn to the pointed angle from the top glazing mass meeting the angle from the bottom concrete mass. (d)