From the President: Obituary for a Modern Building


20 October 2003

By Samuel D. Gruber

FLORENCE, ITALY. -- Another blow was struck against the legacy of modern synagogue architecture, or a particular species of modernism, when the bold and expressive former sanctuary of Temple B'nai Jehudah in Kansas City (Missouri, USA), designed in the mid-1960s by the firm of Kivett and Myers, was sold by the congregation and soon after demolished. Color photographs of the building by Paul Rocheleau are included in my new book "American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community" (Rizzoli 2003).

It was my hope that, by including Temple B'nai Jehudah as one of 35 remarkable 20th-century American synagogues in the book, the reputation of the building would be enhanced and interest in its history and architecture increased. Instead, the book serves as Temple B'nai Jehudah's architectural epitaph.

The question of whether Temple B'nai Jehudah was a good or bad building is now purely academic. Over the years, the literature of the congregation extolled the building, so any last-minute derogatory words from individuals should be seen as mere hypocrisy, designed to soften the announcement of demolition. This is a standard device of all developers -- try to convince the public that they never liked the building so they'll applaud its demolition. Certainly the building had its faults, but these were mostly practical. The high cost of heating and the presence of leaks are problems faced by thousands of buildings, especially religious ones of all periods, but that has rarely been cause for demolition. More importantly, when the sanctuary was built, it was conceived of and seen as a bold statement on behalf of the congregation, and Kansas City Jews, about the strength of their presence, their pride of place and their own perception of themselves as part of modern, dynamic religious and social movement.
The architecture of the building combined archetypal natural and architectural elements, especially the form of the spiral and the feel of a tent. The spiral, or helix, is been much extolled by architects for centuries, as a primal, perfect and infinite form. It unites primitive forms of life such as fern and snail with the vast reaches of the galaxy. The tent obviously recalls the mishkhan (tabernacle) built by the Israelites in the Sinai desert at the command of God, but it also conveys a sense of unity in community and inclusiveness --fundamental elements of synagogues which often proclaim on their portals the lines from Isaiah (56:7): "My House Shall be Called a House of Prayer for all Peoples ."

The demise of this building, which is so representative of a particular time in American architecture and American Judaism, received no national attention. Kansas City is a long way from the national media centers. And yet it was the synagogue's very location that made it especially deserving of national attention. Kivett and Myers brought a form of robust modernism to the Midwest, and while their work may not be well known at Harvard or Columbia, the firm built scores of buildings, and even more importantly nurtured dozens of young architects and spawned as many as 50 new architectural firms.
The analogy to the tent now has greater meaning than originally perceived. Like a tent, like the Mishkhan, Temple B'nai Jehudah has been taken down as the congregation has moved on. Bits and pieces have been saved, just as the windows from an earlier building, likewise abandoned, were incorporated into the 1960s complex.

The point of abandonment

While I don't know all the details concerning the sale and demolition of the sanctuary of the Temple B'nai Jehudah, the general circumstances that led to the sale are not too different from those found elsewhere across the country. Ever since the early 19th century, American Jews have participated in what I have call "the continuing exodus," moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in search of better housing, better jobs, better schools and better security. Because of the congregational nature of the American synagogue, and the communal nature of most other Jewish institutions, Jews have generally taken these with them.
There is often an interim phase when a new educational campus is created to serve families in the new neighborhood, but the old sanctuary facility is maintained out of tradition and responsibility to the remnant of the congregation, usually older people, who stayed put. Eventually, however, the reality of the expense and impracticality of maintaining two facilities outweigh nostalgia, and the older facility is abandoned.

It is at the point of abandonment of the sanctuary that the saga of B'nai Jehudah took an unusual turn. In cases where there is dissatisfaction with a large 1960s modern sanctuary, a new, smaller sanctuary might be built in the same facility. This was done at the North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill., where a more intimate building in a post-modern style was created to supplement the awe-inspiring but enormous hall built by Minoru Yamasaki. Normally, in cases where a congregation moves entirely, there is a new use found for the older structure, usually also for religious purpose, or enough people rally for its preservation to find another function. This was the case, for instance, with B'nai Amona Synagogue in St. Louis, an important modern synagogue complex designed by Erich Mendelsohn, now used as a community arts center. Several congregations featured in the book have opted to preserve their older sanctuaries as loci for special events, even when most of their activity has shifted to a new location. The most famous precedent for this is the preservation of the great Plum Street Synagogue in Cincinnati, the flagship building of the American Reform movement, with which B'nai Jehudah has been affiliated since 1873. Elsewhere, the great 1920s Reform Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, and Tifereth Israel in Cleveland are preserved for the congregation and the broader public, while newer campuses further on the urban periphery serve all of the educational and some of the religious needs of the congregations. More modern synagogues such as the Conservative Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and the Reform Beth Zion in Buffalo, N.Y., now maintain two active centers -- old and new. The older structures are both important examples of the modern religious architecture, and, at present, there are no plans for their abandonment, despite the demographic shifts of the last 20 years. My own synagogue, Temple Society of Concord in Syracuse, almost moved out of the city and left its 1910 classical building in the 1980s. After prolonged discussion that almost split the congregation, some cool heads prevailed, and now the temple finds itself better situated geographically to serve central New York than if it had followed other congregation to the eastern suburbs. Parking remains a problem, but this is being resolved through the gradual acquisition of adjacent land.

An icon passes

At B'nai Jehudah, however, there appears to have been no prolonged debate. Precedents suggest that there might have been alternative uses. Former synagogues and churches have regularly served as assembly halls, concert halls and art galleries in many places, either standing alone or imbedded in education or arts facilities, such as is envisioned for the old B'nai Jehudah site. Was there really no way to create a new school and reuse the sanctuary, too? We will never know for sure. And what, if after a few years, the charter school fails, as many do? Any future opportunity to reuse what was a Kansas City modern icon will have passed.

We should realize that what happened in Kansas City is worth noting, not only for the loss of an important building and the history it represented, but also as a lesson for other places. For surely this situation will be repeated in coming years with only slight variations. Besides the importance of remembering that taste is fleeting and that old styles once despised are often later cherished, we should also consider who decides the fate of our buildings, especially religious structures, even when they are ostensibly privately owned. Despite the separation of church and state, churches and synagogues are public buildings. In most places, they pay no property tax, and they are often exempt from many zoning requirements. In a certain sense, public monies help sustain religious properties. Private taxpayers carry a heavier burden to support those charitable institutions that are exempt, and yet the public does not have much of a say in the sale, reuse or possible demolition of religious buildings. And in the case of the new charter school planned for the site of Temple B'nai Jehudah, presumably this effort will only succeed if it taps into existing public school funds, another instance of where taxpayers are supporting, albeit unwittingly, the destruction of an important building and historic resource.

Samuel D. Gruber is director of the Jewish Heritage Research Center in Syracuse and President of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments. In addition to his new book, he is author of "Synagogues" (Metrobooks 1999). This year is living in Italy, at work on a new book about Medieval Jewish Quarters and Synagogues.
Last updated: November 9, 2003