Beth Sholom Synagogue

Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture

Joseph M. Siry

Beth Sholom Synagogue

Joseph M. Siry

736 pages | 10 color plates, 295 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2011
Cloth $81.00 ISBN: 9780226761404 Published December 2011

In a suburb just north of Philadelphia stands Beth Sholom Synagogue, Frank Lloyd Wright’s only synagogue and among his finest religious buildings. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2007, Beth Sholom was one of Wright’s last completed projects, and for years it has been considered one of his greatest masterpieces.

But its full story has never been told. Beth Sholom Synagogue provides the first in-depth look at the synagogue’s conception and realization in relation to Wright’s other religious architecture. Beginning with his early career at Adler and Sullivan’s architectural firm in Chicago and his design for Unity Temple and ending with the larger works completed just before or soon after his death, Joseph M. Siry skillfully depicts Wright’s exploration of geometric forms and structural techniques in creating architecture for worshipping communities. Siry also examines Wright’s engagement with his clients, whose priorities stemmed from their denominational identity, and the effect this had on his designs—his client for Beth Sholom, Rabbi Mortimer Cohen, worked with Wright to anchor the building in the traditions of Judaism even as it symbolized the faith’s continuing life in postwar America. With each of his religious projects, Wright considered questions of social history and cultural identity as he advanced his program for an expressive, modern American architecture. His search to combine these agendas culminated in Beth Sholom, where the interplay of light, form, and space create a stunning and inspiring place of worship.
Filled with over three hundred illustrations, this remarkable book takes us deep inside the synagogue’s design, construction, and reception to bring us an illuminating portrait of the crowning achievement of this important aspect of Wright’s career.

List of Illustrations     


1   Unitarian Views of Judaism, and Adler and Sullivan’s Synagogues     
2   Rev. William Norman Guthrie and Wright’s Steel Cathedral     
3   Wright and the Ideal Theater to 1932     
4   Annie M. Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College, 1938–41: Modernist Theology and Regional Identity     
5   Community Christian Church, 1939–42     
6   First Unitarian Society of Madison, 1945–52     
7   Beth Sholom, Rabbi Mortimer Cohen, and Postwar Synagogue Architecture     
8   Rabbi Cohen’s Vision and Wright’s Original Design for Beth Sholom Synagogue     
9   Beth Sholom Synagogue: Design Development and Construction     
10   Reception of Beth Sholom and Its Place in Wright’s Late Work     

Epilogue   Beth Sholom since 1959     

Selected Bibliography     

Review Quotes
Anthony Alofsin, University of Texas

“One of the few authentic scholars in the field of Wright studies, Joseph Siry has once again made a major contribution to our understanding of the architect’s ideas and buildings. Set in the context of Wright’s designs for religious architecture, Siry’s brilliant, clear, and thoroughly documented monograph is the definitive work on the magisterial Beth Sholom synagogue. This beautifully written book is indispensable for our grasp of the architect’s late work.”

Jack Quinan, SUNY, University at Buffalo

“The brilliance of this study of Frank Lloyd Wright’s religious architecture lies in Siry’s explication of the architect’s intensive early exposure to the discourses on identity, faith, and its architectural representation among progressive Jewish and Protestant intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century. By embedding detailed descriptive analyses of Wright’s subsequent religious architecture in an exhaustively researched social history, Siry significantly deepens our understanding and appreciation of the buildings.”

David G. De Long, University of Pennsylvania | David G. DeLong, University of Pennsylvania

“This monumental study significantly broadens our understanding of Wright’s work. The importance of Beth Sholom becomes clear through Siry’s richly detailed, deep analysis that places the building within the context of Wright’s other designs for religious buildings, their diverse sources, and the philosophical beliefs that underlie them. Siry sets a high standard for Wright scholarship.”

Susan G. Solomon, author of Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentury American Synagogue | Susan G. Solomon, author of "Louis I. Kahn's Jewish Architecture"

“Siry’s compelling book is a superb study of Wright and the only synagogue he designed. Meticulously researched and brilliantly written, this single volume places Beth Sholom into a broad context that illuminates the development of twentieth-century American religious architecture and Wright’s critical place in it. This is the rare work that blends extraordinary scholarship with a clear narrative. Siry provides not only telling insights into the working relationship between the architect and the congregation’s rabbi but also profound analysis of the role of Reconstructionist Jewish thought on the meaning of the building.”

Jewish Review of Books

“A massive and absorbing new account of the building of Beth Sholom.”

Jewish Daily Forward

“It is a beautifully produced work of art in its own right, and it is certain to be the definitive work on its subject. . . . In meticulously chronicling the building’s design history, Siry has produced a study that is unprecedented in its thoroughness.”

“Siry offers a wealth of insights into the building’s adventurous structural configuration, the remarkable interplay between architecture and nature experienced in the main worship space, and the close working relationship that developed between the architect and his client.”
The Canadian Jewish News
“Siry, in exemplary fashion, explains and extols Wright’s crowning achievement in this illuminating volume.”
“Although Siry writes more on Beth Sholom synagogue in Philadelphia (1953-9) than on any of Frank Lloyd Wright’s other religious commissions, the book is in effect a fine survey of the complete corpus. . . . Not only enables us to inspect at first-hand the dialogue that took place between architect and client but also what it is about the buildings that made Wright such a great architect.”
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
“Proves that Wright studies can remain vibrant in the proper hands. Serving as the foundation for any future investigations of Wright’s religious work, the book will be valuable not only to Wright fans but also to anyone interested in the larger issues surrounding synagogue architecture in the twentieth century.”

Jewish Book Council: National Jewish Book Award

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