While renowned architect Louis Kahn is best remembered in New Jersey for his famous Trenton Bath House at the former site of the JCC of the Delaware Valley in Ewing, his designs for one of the country’s oldest congregations remain some of his most innovative work.
His plans for Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel — which introduced groundbreaking concepts in the use of light, space, siting, landscaping, and Jewish ritual — never came to fruition, but they do provide a lens through which to view trends in the design of synagogues built after World War II.
On Feb. 19, Princeton resident and architecture expert Dr. Susan Solomon presented “What Makes a Modern Space Look Jewish.” Her talk at the Jewish Center in Princeton was based on the latest of her three books, Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue.
Solomon showed a series of slides depicting the transformation of American-Jewish houses of worship in the postwar period.
During those decades, synagogue design began to move from a more traditional aesthetic to one displaying modern influences often incorporating Kahn’s ideas of what a modern synagogue should be.
Kahn received a commission in 1961 to design Mikveh Israel, a historic Sephardi synagogue founded in 1740. The Philadelphia Board of Rabbis suggested it move from its location on upper Broad Street near Elkins Park to the city’s “historic” Society Hill section during its renovation.
“It was a misguided idea,” said Solomon, owner of the Princeton-based Curatorial Resources and Research. “The idea was to seek contributions from all over the city, from Jews and non-Jews.”
The plan did not work, the project remained unfunded, and, 11 years later, it was shelved and Kahn was essentially fired. The synagogue instead moved to Independence Mall — near its original site — on the occasion of the bicentennial in 1976.
The new synagogue was built using someone else’s designs and incorporating the National Museum of American Jewish History (which opened its massive new facility in 2010).
“Kahn had always envisioned some sort of museum” being housed in the synagogue, said Solomon. “They finally decided that rather than be a synagogue with a museum they would be a museum with a synagogue.”
However, Kahn’s other ideas that “went against the grain” of what was happening in suburban synagogues began to assert some influence, said Solomon.
She noted that Kahn — who was born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky in Estonia — was a nonobservant Jew who struggled to reconcile how to transmit the spirituality of Judaism in harmony with his own architectural ideas.
Describing his vision for Mikveh Israel, Solomon said, Kahn “sees a sanctuary that is not expandable. He sees a social hall in another building. He uses light to change spiritual perspective.”
Kahn’s intention was to use “light as decoration,” in a synagogue setting, to convey a sense of Jews as “a people of history” and the rhythms of time.
The use of light was central in Kahn’s 1955 design of the Trenton Bath House at the Ewing JCC, which Solomon worked to have placed on the NJ and National Registers of Historic Places in 1984. She also authored the book Louis I. Kahn’s Trenton Jewish Community Center.
The landmark had been neglected for years and faced potential demolition when the JCC put the land up for sale in 2005. However, Mercer County and Ewing Township came to the rescue, jointly acquiring the site in 2006 and embarking on a restoration effort with the Princeton firm Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects.
Now called the Ewing Senior and Community Center, the 38-acre site includes an outdoor swimming pool and four pavilions surrounding an open-air atrium, all designed by Kahn.
Kahn also left his mark in New Jersey when in 1935 he was hired to assist in designing Jersey Homesteads (now Roosevelt), a planned community built by the New Deal Resettlement Administration.