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An Architectural Gem in our Midst: Temple Beth El of Springfield

The geometrically-paned windows in Temple Beth El’s main sanctuary. 
Photo by Judy Polan

The geometrically-paned windows in Temple Beth El’s
main sanctuary.
Photo by Judy Polan

By Judy Polan

SPRINGFIELD – Nearly 100 people turned out last Sunday afternoon, to attend a one-of-a-kind art and architecture symposium at Temple Beth El in Springfield. Experts in design, architecture, visual arts, crafts and history spoke about the synagogue’s distinctly modernist style; about the prominence of the temple’s architect, Percival Goodman; and about the manner in which the building’s creation affected the congregation and the city in which it stands.

The Oct. 27 symposium was the third of four occasions commemorating the 100th anniversary of Temple Beth El, Western Massachusetts’ largest Conservative Jewish congregation. It featured a tour of the building and its impressive art collection, followed by a lively keynote address by Dr. Samuel Gruber, distinguished American art and architectural historian.

A panel discussion and subsequent Q & A were led by three noteworthy scholars of the art and architecture community: Gruber; P. Scott Cohen, Chair and Professor of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design; and Suzanne O’Keefe, AIA, family friend and biographer of Percival Goodman. The elucidating event, in its entirety, revealed the Springfield synagogue to be a treasure trove of mid-century modern architecture and decorative arts.

Temple Beth El was established in 1913; by 1953 its congregation had grown to the point where it needed a larger facility, which was built at the present Dickinson Street campus. After suffering a devastating fire in 1965, it was redesigned by preeminent synagogue architect and Columbia University professor Percival Goodman, reopening to much fanfare in 1968. Dr. Gruber called Goodman “one of the least known, best architects in America. He was a seeker, whose work demonstrated a deep understanding of the human condition.” He also noted architect Goodman’s perception that “it takes more than a building to animate Judaism; it takes the Shekhina (Holy Presence).”

The new synagogue – a 65,000+ square foot building set on 12 landscaped acres – was designed in the International Style, a mode of architecture that became popular in Europe in the 1930s. It emphasizes the streamlining of forms, maximal impact of natural light, and the use of glass, steel and stone as preferred materials.

Goodman, a strong proponent of Modernism, designed a dramatically angled ceiling in Temple Beth El’s grand main sanctuary, juxtaposed with wide walls of geometrically-paned windows that capture and magnify sunlight as it streams in. These windows also interrelate with nature from adjacent Forest Park, designed in the late nineteenth century by America’s greatest landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead.

Included in Goodman’s design plan were an elegantly simple small chapel for weekday services, a spacious social hall with modular wooden dividers to make the space flexible to suit various groups’ sizes, and a modern apartment for the synagogue caretaker.

One longtime member of the TBE community commented that “the architecture wasn’t widely accepted at the time the synagogue was built. People thought it was too modern, too cold.” But over time, she said, people started to appreciate the combination of simplicity and drama that were expressed in the design. “We began to feel how serene and inspiring it is.”

To create sculptures, textiles and metalwork for the synagogue, Goodman handpicked some of his former students at Columbia – people who went on to become famous decorative artists in their own right. Chief among them were Ibram Lassow, an Egyptian-born sculptor known primarily for his work in brazed metals (he was allied with the New York School of Abstract expressionism) and painter, sculptor and graphic artist Adolf Gottlieb.

Lassow crafted the tree of life sculpture that is the centerpiece of the building’s front, as well as the synagogue’s luminous yahrzeit wall (wood and metal), hanging lanterns, and the small chapel’s ark, candelabra and Ner Tamid (eternal light.). Gottlieb created the designs for the small chapel’s ark cover, as well as other textile works throughout the building.

Now-famous Modernist artist Robert Motherwell designed a tapestry for Beth El’s small chapel; it is currently undergoing restoration, but will soon be back in the room for the community’s enjoyment.

Temple Beth El’s Cantor Emeritus Morton Shames, an art aficionado himself, spoke briefly about the delight he has always taken from the congregation’s striking building.

“We feel a sense of ownership when we drive by, and a great sense of pride. It was designed and crafted by artists who have become very famous. It’s a uniquely beautiful house of worship.”

 

Temple Beth El’s 100th anniversary celebrations will culminate in an evening gala on Nov. 2. In addition to cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, a dinner provided by Chez Josef, and dancing, the event will feature a video montage of life cycle events that have taken place at the temple over the past 100 years. For more information, call (413) 733-4149 or email office@tbespringfield.org.

 

Judy Polan (www.judypolan.com) is a freelance design writer.

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