Art Deco Temple Emanuel of Paterson (New Jersey) stripped of most of its synagogue features
by Samuel D. Gruber
Temple Emanuel of Paterson, New Jersey, the sumptuously decorated Art Deco masterpiece by Frederick Wentworth (1864-1943) that was dedicated in September 1929, was sold earlier this year. The building, located within the National Register Eastside Park Historic District had been on the market for a decade.
On January 6, 2008, members of the congregation removed the temple's limestone cornerstone and unsealed its lead time capsule. In addition, scores of original religious and decorative features made by numerous talented (still-anonymous) artisans, including carved walnut ark doors, bronze dedication plaques, and dedicatory and ceremonial items, were removed – often with considerable effort - and taken away. Stained glass doors, brass door plates, lighting, a bronze vestibule door, unique bronze radiator covers, and many other superb Art Deco decorations crafted for the temple were carried off with varying degrees of care by several congregation members for storage. A witness reports that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the removals, and no attempt to inventory, catalogue or photograph what was taken.
Fortunately, ISJM sponsored complete photography of the Paterson building in 2007 as part of its Rescue Documentation Program, when ISJM successfully nominated the building to the Preservation New Jersey "Ten Most Endangered" list.
For now, the main sanctuary's enormous stained glass Magen David dome light and 21 glorious tall windows by the Payne Studios (Paterson) remain in situ, but these may soon be removed as per a previous agreement. The diminished congregation, which has reinvented itself in recent years, has bought a former church in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Some of the items may be re-used at the congregation's new home, but it is doubtful that the style or the size of the Paterson windows would fit well in the new sanctuary without making substantial cuts and rearrangements.
Recently, new construction activity has been reported at the former synagogue, but the new owner's future plans for the property remain uncertain, although an April 2008 newspaper article mentioned the transformation of the building into medical offices. The property is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places but it is not known whether the new owner intends to preserve it, and if so, in what fashion.
Though essentially in good condition after eighty years of use, adaptive reuse will certainly require a major investment to upgrade mechanical systems, repair the roof and generally modernize the complex.
Temple Emanuel was dedicated on September 20, 1929 as one the largest, most impressive and most richly decorated of all Art Deco synagogues. It was one of the last synagogues completed before the onset of the Great Depression. Until January, the synagogue remained intact, although the congregation had ceased using the building for worship and had put the building up for sale.
The limestone and brick Temple featured extensive well-preserved innovative elements in marble, stained glass, bronze, terrazzo, wood, and plaster. Every feature – from doorknobs and heating grates to the massive entry doors and elaborate Ark decorations were carefully designed. The massive octagonal main sanctuary features a series of bronze filigree entrance doors and oversize lanterns embellished with complex geometric details. The 21 tall stained glass panels represent biblical scenes and are framed with bold geometric motifs. A massive central dome light, with an intricate sunburst, dominates the stepped ceiling. A small secondary sanctuary, classrooms, reception halls,
offices, and circulation spaces occupy the flat-roofed northern half of the property. The extremely sophisticated treatment of almost every aesthetic feature established the temple as a triumph of 1920s Modernism.
The synagogue was designed by the prominent Paterson firm of Frederick Wentworth. It was largely financed by motion picture magnate Jacob Fabian. In its heyday it represented, along with the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, the juncture of American Judaism and the American movie industry.
Historical and architectural information about the building is based in part on research by Art Deco expert and preservation consultant Glen Leiner who helped arrange ISJM's photographic documentation by Vincent Giordano in 2007. ISJM thanks Mr. Leiner.