In the Jewish Review of Books, David Gelernter writes about the architecture of two strikingly different but surprisingly similar synagogues: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Shalom in suburban Philadelphia, built in the 1950s, and the wooden synagogue in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine, built in the late 17th/early 18th century.
Oddly, while the article mentions the replica of the synagogue created by the Handshouse Studio, it does not mention the Studio’s Gwozdziec synagogue roof-building project that is part of the forthcoming Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Handshouse coordinated the construction last summer of an 85 percent scale replica of the roof, using traditional tools, and this summer the interior painting will be recreated at several workshops around Poland. The finished cupola will be a key installation of the new Museum.
In 1954, the synagogue historian Rachel Wischnitzer read about the Beth Sholom project in TIME magazine. She was impressed, and wrote to both Rabbi Cohen and Frank Lloyd Wright that Beth Sholom’s design “was anticipated by those obscure Jewish carpenters in Poland and the Ukraine who built village synagogues on a square plan with stepped pyramidal roofs and the bimah, of course, in the center.” It seems that Cohen himself underscored the resemblance between Wright’s project and these synagogues by showing “Wright a photograph of the synagogue in Gwoździec, Galicia (Poland) which was in the shape of a mountain.”
The external resemblance between these Polish synagogues and Wright’s Beth Sholom is striking, and it returns us to the deep question underlying the negotiations between Cohen and Wright. Not a single Polish wooden synagogue still stands, but a few years ago the architectural historian Thomas Hubka published a brilliant book on the very synagogue that Rachel Wischnitzer and Rabbi Cohen tried to bring to Wright’s attention. His Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community tells the story of the Gwoździec (pronounced Gov-vosz-djets, if that helps) synagogue, or shul. […]
The two synagogues have a surprising relation: Wright’s sprawling, towering, wholly distinctive celebration of suburban Judaism echoes the shape of that small, long-ago building in Poland. And the echo tells us something important about the remarkable and largely unknown achievement of synagogue architecture over the centuries.