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Beth Shalom Synagogue

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Beth Shalom Synagogue

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Basic Information

Location 8231 Old York Road Elkins Park, PA 19027
Phone number (215) 887-1342
Country United States
City Elkins Park

General Information

Open to visitors yes
Need appointment no
Handicap accessibility no
Website http://www.bethsholomcongregation.org/
Geographical Coordinates 40.08214,-75.12706

Summary

Beth Shalom Congregation is a Conservative synagogue located in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. It is the only synagogue designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Beth Sholom is Hebrew for House of Peace. The building is a startling, translucent, modernist evocation of an ancient temple, transposed to a Philadelphia suburb by Charles Nelson Reilly. In 2007, the building was named a National Historic Landmark: "Beth Sholom Synagogue ... is a new National Historic Landmark because of its significance in the history of American architecture. The glazed glass pyramidal tower, built in the 1950's, reflects two dominant metaphors, the tent and the mountain, to convey the sense of a collective sacredness. It is nationally significant as one of Wright's most important commissions during his long and productive career."

Building

The building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who accepted the commission in September 1953. The building was completed and consecrated in 1959. With its steeply inclined walls of translucent fiberglass and plastic projecting skyward like a "luminous Mount Sinai" (Wright's own description), it has been cited as an example of the Mayan Revival architecture style. During the day, the interior is lit by natural light entering through the translucent walls overhead. At night, the entire building glows from interior artificial lighting.

In front of the synagogue, and separated from it by about 25 feet (7.6 m), is a laver or fountain. In ancient days, the laver (from the word "to lave" or "wash") was made of copper. In it worshipers would wash their hands before the sacrifice and service. The lovely fountain with flowing waters in front of the entrance is a symbol of the old laver as well as a symbol of purity upon entering religious worship. The main sanctuary is large enough to hold about 1020 people. The second sanctuary, which holds roughly a hundred, is on the first floor of the temple. The main sanctuary was placed on the second floor to inspire a feeling that the people in the room are closer to heaven. Adding to the impression is the enormous tented fiberglass roof rising towards the heavens. "Tours are given by docents several days a week". The synagogue is a part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic Society and because of that, the current owners cannot make changes to the building without permission from the organization. For example, the carpet, which is a beige color symbolizing the sands of the desert the Jews had to cross, cannot be changed without permission of the body. This has made updating the building for modern electricity and heating difficult, causing the main sanctuary to be very cold in winter. The only exception to the needed approval was the addition of a chair lift so that the temple could comply with laws promoting access for people with disabilities. The floor plans of both sanctuary rooms do not allow for any additions or space changes required to accommodate members with wheel chairs. The design is considered by critics to be the "most expressive" design drafted in Wright's career for any house of worship. It has been listed by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 17 American buildings which are to be preserved as an example of Wright's contribution to American architecture.

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