The Pennsylvania Synagogue by Frank Lloyd Wright

Beth Sholom Synagogue by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959

Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania was the first and only synagogue designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). Dedicated in September 1959, five months after Wright's death, this house of worship and religious study near Philadelphia is a culmination of the architect's vision and continued evolution.

A "Gigantic Biblical Tent"

Exterior of Beth Sholom Synagogue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Exterior of Beth Sholom Synagogue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Architectural historian G. E. Kidder Smith describes Wright's House of Peace as a translucent tent (view larger image). As a tent is mostly roof, the implication is that the building is really a glass roof. For the structural design, Wright used the identifying geometry of the triangle found in the Star of David.

" The structure of the building is based on an equilateral triangle with a heavy, concrete, parallelogram-shaped pier anchoring each point. The mighty ridge beams, which rise from the three points, lean inward as they rise from their foundations to their truncated pinnacle, producing a towering monumentality."—Smith

Source: G. E. Kidder Smith, Source Book of American Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 450

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Symbolic Crockets

Roof crockets on Beth Sholom Synagogue by Frank Lloyd Wright in Pennsylvania
Crockets on Beth Sholom Synagogue by Frank Lloyd Wright in Pennsylvania. Roof crockets ©Jay Reed, j.reed on flickr.com, Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

This glass pyramid, resting on desert-colored concrete, is held together by metal frames, as a greenhouse may be. The framework is decorated with crockets (view larger image), an ornamental affect from the 12th century Gothic era. The crockets are simple geometric shapes, looking very much like Wright-designed candle holders or lamps. Each framing band includes seven crockets, symbolic of the seven candles of a temple's menorah.

Reflected Light

The roof of Beth Sholom at sunset creates a golden reflection off the glass
The roof of Beth Sholom at sunset creates a golden reflection off the glass. Reflected sunlight by Brian Dunaway [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
" More and more, so it seems to me, light is the beautifier of the building."—Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935

By this point late in Wright's career, the architect knew precisely what to expect as the light changed on his organic architecture. The exterior glass panels and metal reflect the surroundings—the rain, the clouds, and the setting sun become the environment of the architecture itself. The exterior becomes one with the interior.

SOURCE: Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 191.

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Main Entrance

Main entrance at Beth Sholom Synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Main entrance at Beth Sholom Synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

In 1953, Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen approached the famous architect to create what has been described as "a distinctively American architectural idiom for a Jewish house of worship."

"The building, unusual in both form and materials, radiates otherworldliness," says cultural reporter Julia Klein. "Symbolizing Mount Sinai, and evoking a vast desert tent, the hexagonal structure towers above the leafy avenue...."

The entrance (view larger image) defines the architecture. Geometry, space, and light—all interests of Frank Lloyd Wright—are present in one area for all to enter into.

Source: "The Rabbi and Frank Lloyd Wright" by Julia M. Klein, The Wall Street Journal, updated December 22, 2009 [accessed November 25, 2013]

Inside Beth Sholom Synagogue

Tent-like spacious glass-enclosed interior of Beth Sholom Synagogue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Interior of Beth Sholom Synagogue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Synagogue interior ©Jay Reed, j.reed on flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

Cherokee red flooring, a hallmark of Wright's 1950s designs, creates a traditional entrance to the dramatic main sanctuary. A level above a smaller sanctuary, the vast open interior is bathed in surrounding natural light. A large, triangular, stained-glass chandelier is engulfed by the open space (view larger image of interior).

Architectural Significance:

" As Wright's only commission for a synagogue and his only non-Christian ecclesiastical design, Beth Sholom Synagogue possesses singularity among an already rarified group of Wright-conceived religious buildings. It also holds weight within Wright's long and distinguished career for the unusually collaborative relationship between Wright and Beth Sholom's rabbi, Mortimer J. Cohen (1894−1972). The finished building is a striking religious design quite unlike any other and is a benchmark in Wright's career, mid-twentieth century architectural trends, and in the story of American Judaism."—National Historic Landmark Nomination, 2006

Source: National Historic Landmark Nomination prepared by Dr. Emily T. Cooperman, April 10, 2006 at http://www.nps.gov/nhl/designations/samples/pa/Beth%20Sholom.pdf [accessed November 24, 2013]