- Wright’s Beth Sholom Synagogue
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) designed more than 1,000 buildings, for a myriad of uses, throughout America. Admired internationally by architects, historians, and the general public, he is often associated with two structures: Fallingwater, the country house in western Pennsylvania, and New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Landmarks of the modern movement, both buildings have also become symbols of the twentieth century and the human imagination.
Fallingwater, built for Liliane and Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., and the Guggenheim, sponsored by Solomon Guggenheim, were not isolated commissions late in the architect’s brilliant but tumultuous career. Indeed, he received commissions from more than three dozen Jewish clients over fifty years. 1 Wright was trained at the leading Chicago firm, Adler & Sullivan, whose senior partner, Dankmar Adler, the son of a rabbi, built widely for a Jewish clientele. Throughout his independent career Wright attracted numerous Jewish apprentices, assistants, and associates who helped implement his dream (and theirs) of a beautiful, practical, and natural architecture for a democratic nation.
Wright’s legacy lives. Many of his buildings have become museums, and his drawings, windows, furniture, and interiors have been collected in this country and in Europe. 2 Among several Wright exhibitions the most encyclopedic was presented by the Museum of Modern Art in 1994. Numerous recent publications include three biographies, a definitive list of buildings, a major scholarly analysis of his oeuvre, editions of [End Page 325] his letters, reminiscences by clients, monographs on individual masterpieces, and splendid volumes of photographs. 3 There have been two impressive documentary films: Murray Grigor’s in 1983 and Ken Burns’ in 1998.
That Wright was the designer of a large American synagogue—perhaps the most audacious of the modern era—is largely forgotten, however. 4 While one of Wright’s biographers ignored Beth Sholom, in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, another biographer gave it a paragraph. 5 A third biographer, a self-avowed atheist, concluded, however, that the synagogue was perhaps Wright’s finest ecclesiastical design. 6 Indeed, Beth Sholom is only one of 18 synagogues (two of them American) represented by models in Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Diaspora. 7
In 1905, near the peak of his early career in and around Chicago, Wright received a commission to build a meetinghouse (Unity Temple) for the Unitarian Society in Oak Park, Illinois, of which he was nominally a member. In 1938, after experiencing a startling renewal—thanks, in part, to the wide appeal of Fallingwater—he was hired to design the Anne Pfeiffer Chapel of Florida Southern College, in Lakeland. During this long interregnum, though he received a few nibbles, Wright was unable to build any houses of worship and few imposing buildings of any kind. [End Page 326]
On the one hand Wright’s scandalous relationships with wives and lovers must have offended religious leaders. On the other hand houses of worship were the building types most deeply embedded in architectural traditions. While Wright preached traditional values, he was, fundamentally, an iconoclast.
Even if known to synagogue building committees, Wright was probably not given much consideration. Absent in Germany and Italy from 1909 to 1910, he would not have been available to even discuss the commission for Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue. 8 In 1912 a new synagogue for Sinai Congregation might have been a possibility, for Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch was a close friend and colleague of Wright’s uncle, the Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a leading Unitarian minister in Chicago. 9 But this commission, like others in the 1920s, went to conventional Jewish architects. 10
Between 1917 and 1922 Wright spent most of his time in Tokyo building the ornate Imperial Hotel. During this period he constructed five residences in Southern California, where he hoped to establish a new practice. But Wright was not considered by Congregation B’nai B’rith, Los Angeles’ oldest and largest Jewish congregation, when it constructed its third synagogue, on Wilshire Boulevard, in 1929. 11
After his return from Europe, Wright, a native of Wisconsin, began to erect Taliesin, his home and studio (also later a school) on a farm 40 miles west of Madison. In the 1920s, when...