Feature Stories

Conversation with Rick Brown

Rick and Laura Brown of Handshouse Studio

Rick and Laura Brown of Handshouse Studio

Replicating a Polish synagogue

By Stacey Dresner

BOSTON – A replica of the roof of The Gwozdziec Synagogue, a 17th century wooden temple in Poland, was recently installed at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, with the help of a Boston firm.

Handshouse Studio, led by Rick and Laura Brown of Norwell, Mass., initiated the project, practicing what they call their “hands-on approach to education through the recreation of historical structures.” Handshouse worked to build the recplica in cooperation with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, and the Timber Framers Guild in Poland. In all, the project took ten years of work, 400 volunteers and experts from around the world. The replica of the Gwozdziec Synagogue roof will be one of the main parts of the museum’s core exhibition.

Gwoździec is a town near Kolomyja, today a part of the Ukraine. The presence of Jews there dates back to 1635. According to the 1765 census there were 541 Jews living in Gwoździec, making up about 60 percent of the town’s population. The Gwozdziec Synagogue was built in 1640 out of wood. The synagogue, like all others of its kind in the area, was destroyed during World War II by the Germans.

Brown and Handshouse ran two workshops in 2011 and 2012 during which students from around the world worked on the replica – building panels of wood that became sides of the roof and painting the inside with colorful motifs historically accurate to the painted walls ands ceiling originally in the synagogue. The workshops took place in historic synagogues around Poland, including Wroclaw, Krakow, Kazimierz Dolny, Rzeszow, Sejny, Gdansk and Szczebrzeszyn as well as Sanok, where the wooden roof construction was put together at an open-air museum. At each of these locations the workshops were accompanied by cultural events and educational activities dealing with   Jewish and Polish culture.

The completed roof was installed last month, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Besides his work with Handshouse Studio, Rick Brown is a professor of Fine Arts 3-D at Massachusetts College of Art And Design. He recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about Handshouse’s work in Poland on the Gwozdziec Synagogue.

Q: What exactly is Handshouse Studio?

A: My partner in life, Laura Brown and I co-founded Handshouse Studio in 2002. It is a non-profit, educational organization. What we do is replicate large historic objects as educational projects. In doing that we create what we call dynamic learning environments. A pedagogy that we repeat is that it is based on “learn by doing.” We believe that if you replicate a historic object and you do it as accurately as possible —  you use the same tools and the same  technology and the same methods and information — what happens is that you start to uncover aspects that are very unique to that original object. We believe, in fact, that you can discover things that you can’t discover any other way. So, it is a process of inquiry and research, and then discovery. It is a way of connecting young people, students – or we prefer “learners,” because we believe everyone contributes, everybody learns – to this process.

Q: How many projects have you done?

A: I couldn’t say an exact number. We have done a wide range of technologies and cultures and time periods. For example, we did a project with PBS’s Nova where their objective was to come up with an idea that would be credible of how the Egyptians raised an obelisk. The Egyptians wrote down everything, but they did not record how they raised an obelisk. We built a submarine for the Discovery Channel, we recently carved a sphinx nose for PBS’s Nova, we’ve done human powered cranes, we’ve built bell towers; we’ve done a lot of large projects.

The replicated ceiling of the Gwozdziec Synagogue.

The replicated ceiling of the Gwozdziec Synagogue.

Q: How did you learn about the Gwozdziec Synagogue?

A: We were working on a human-powered crane project and there was a professor there from New York University. He said that he had heard that in Poland there was a gentleman from the ministry of culture who was trying to bring people from around the world to a conference that he was organizing. The idea was that they wanted to replicate a 17th century wooden synagogue. So when this guy presented it to us, he asked if this would be a good Handshouse project. We said, ‘Wow, this sounds like an amazing project.’ So we were invited as representatives of Handshouse Studio to present our work and come to this a conference in Poland. Their intention was to replicate Zabludow Synagogue [in Northeastern Poland]. But the irony was that, here was this group of people from all over the world representing building organizations, museum directors, Skansen directors and traditional builders. We were the only educators there and there was only one Jewish representative from the timber frame guild. I was amazed that here was this subject about Jewish history and there was so little participation – or invitation – for Jewish representation. There were enough people there and skills there to build this replica, but we said, ‘We don’t know anything about this history.’ We recommended turning this into an international learning network and trying to come to know this subject better. We wanted to build a culture of people around this idea so we could go into this and be much more intelligent, much more informed and be much more accurate.

At that time there were people there who believed they had some funding to build this thing, and in fact they didn’t. So after that it just vaporized. But when we came back from there we were very inspired. At Massachusetts College of Art, I have a class called Technology and Culture, a topic that covers many of projects we have done. Laura and I offered a class where we built a large-scale model of the Zabludow Synagogue.

We knew if we did that we would do it for two purposes: one was as a potential construction model; and two, we made it big and quite beautiful because we knew if we could exhibit this we would start to popularize the subject and get more interest from scholars and institutions, builders and students. As soon as we completed this thing, we put it on the road. We started exhibiting it around the country.

Then we went right into a phase where we decided we were going to try to replicate the entire ceiling painting of the Gwozdziec Synagogue. We did that over about a seven year period where we offered these classes at MassArt and we would take a section of the ceiling and replicate it. We replicated the entire ceiling, only having access to photographs that were black and white and to very limited color sources. What that led to was many travel programs that we organized to Poland with students to look at existing churches – not synagogues, because they were all destroyed.

There were 200 of these synagogues that were built in the 17th and 18th century that were magnificent pieces of architecture and they all were destroyed by 1942 during the Nazi invasion. So we took students to Poland to see churches that were built in the same proximity to these synagogues and we assumed, with similar building techniques and materials, and also the polychrome ceilings and walls, that those churches would give us information about color. So we became more and more informed about so many aspects of Poland.

Q: How did your replica become a part of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw?

A: We had been working with John Rubin Productions [which was] documenting our process…John scheduled for us to meet an architect in New York who would hopefully help us get funding for more film documentation…He said, ‘Do you mind if I bring somebody else to that meeting?’ It turned out that it was Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the core exhibition director for the new Museum of History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which at that time hadn’t broken ground yet…We showed them the evidence of all of our research. Barbara said, ‘This is amazing what you are doing. You have already been doing for a number of years what we intend to be the mission of this new museum we are building in Poland.’ She said they wanted to build a fragment of a synagogue and wanted us to come to Warsaw and meet with the designers immediately. We went to Warsaw and we entered this room just filled with some of the best scholars from Israel and all over the world…That began our relationship where they began consulting with us and asking us what we would recommend, what they should do and what synagogue they should choose, which led to the Gwozdziec Synagogue.

We proposed it as an educational project. Our objective is education and international education. We proposed bringing together scholars, educators, historians, designer professionals, craftspeople, artists and students from all over the world and were going to replicate it as an educational project in Poland over three summers and bring travel  programs in.

Q: How did you research wooden synagogues?

A: When we do projects we look for people who are authorities on that history. In the case of the synagogue, we worked very early with Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka They wrote the first book called, “Wooden Synagogues,” published in 1957. They are what we consider the mother and father of this history. We also worked closely with Tom Hubka, who wrote the book, “Resplendent Synagogue” which is specifically about Gwozdziec. Then we worked with Mark Epstein who teaches at Vassar and whose area of specialization is Jewish iconography. So we are always trying to find the best academic and scholarly resources that we possibly can.

Q: What do you call the style that these synagogues were built in and why are they so important in terms of architecture?


A: The focus of Tom Hubka, who wrote “Resplendent Synagogue” is on vernacular architecture – architechture that is not designed by architects specifically. He found this genre of synagogue and what he tries to show in his book is that a lot of people try to perceive of people in the shtetl and the Jewish population in Poland as being this kind of impoverished, farm-town folks. Tom Hubka completely dispels that. He says, yes in the latter part of the 19th century the Jews in Easten Europe were very impoverished, but the country was very impoverished. The Jewish population was there over a thousand years and the period of time when these synagogues were built was the Golden Age of European Jewry. These are not examples of folk art and folk architecture, Hubka says these are very high art and deserve to be perceived in a much more intellectual fashion….These buildings rival some of the great wooden architecture and art anywhere in the world. That is where we come from too. Our position is that this is very sophisticated Jewish art and Polish architecture. As educators we are constantly encouraging young people to continue researching this history because it has not been studied and written about. At some point, hopefully someone can put it in it proper historic place.




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