When Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen wrote to architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1950s, he said that envisioned a wholly modern “American synagogue, a Mt. Sinai of light…wrought in modern materials.”
The rabbi’s vision produced Beth Shalom of Elkins Park, the soaring concrete and glass building of space age proportions, the great architect’s only synagogue out of at least 1,000 projects. Completed in 1959 shortly after Wright’s death, this year marks the building’s 50th anniversary, an historic milestone for most buildings, but for Beth Sholom an especially important time because for half a century there have been no real restorations to the building save work on the synagogue’s glass ceiling, which has been subject to leaks over the years. This summer Philadelphia’s Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) initiated a new project: the carving out of a Visitor’s Center within Beth Sholom’s Robin Lounge, a heretofore unremarkable space that over the years had been crammed with memorabilia-filled display cases.
“The building is the same age as the Guegiehameim in New York, which was just restored,” says James Kolker, principal at VSBA, who heads the creation of a new Visitor Center within the building. “The project has two components. One is taking a lounge that is used for many different purposes and restoring it. We took out these cases that have been put in it, bring back the original color and appearance. Within that space we added the exhibition components. The display cases were really just dumped there,” Mr. Kolker adds.
Mr. Kolker says his participation in the project has special significance for him because he was Bar Mitzvohed at Beth Sholom some thirty years ago. “There’s a sentimental attachment here,” he says.
VSBA worked with Picture Projects of New York since July to create a Visitors Center that is much more than plaques on a wall. The final product includes interactive videos, exhibits of the architect’s ink drawings, as well as the correspondence between Wright and Rabbi Cohen. A gift shop now sells Wright-related housewares, stationary and jewelry. The project was completed and opened to the public on November 15, 2009.
“Beth Sholom is a living and breathing institution, not a dead historic artifact,” Mr. Kolker says, “but it’s a very inaccessible building for wheelchairs or elderly people because it has steps all over the place, so one of the major structural changes was replacing a little stairway with a ramp.”