Temple Beth El was designed by Percival Goodman, and constructed in 1953. The commission was part of the demand for new synagogues for suburban Jewish communities as part of the migration of American families to the suburbs following World War II. During the period of prosperity after World War II, many American families left their urban communities for the suburbs. This migration of Jewish families took them away from their urban communities and local places of worship. In the suburbs, these congregations could find more afford more land on which to build their religious, social, and educational facilities. In this decentralized landscape the synagogue took on more purpose than ritual observance. It was essential that they maintain their sense of community, and the synagogue became the social heart of the congregation. At the same time, education was moving out from the home, and becoming a principal function of the synagogue.
In October 1965, the synagogue was damaged in a devastating fire. After three years, a newer, grander structure again designed by Goodman was rededicated, still reflecting a modern, pared-down aesthetic.
The building’s main components are the large main sanctuary, large social hall, and a library and classrooms that serve both a K-12 Hebrew school and adult education programs.
The sanctuary is decorated with traditional Jewish symbols, using vibrant colors and massive sculptural shapes. The backdrop of the raised stage at the front of the sanctuary is a large triptych with a taller center panel that is the Torah ark. The area is framed by large pilasters that support an octagonal roof. The continuing of the pilasters into the beams of the tiered ceiling with small recessed lights and the stained glass opening toward the front of the sanctuary give the room a bright, open appearance without the amount of space overwhelming the viewer. It is as if, standing at the main doors, one is looking at the horizon line and the ceiling above is the open sky.
The street-facing façade indicates the position of the Torah ark, which traditionally was not obvious from the exterior, however in Goodman’s Modernist synagogues it corresponds with the street-facing wall as seen at Temple Beth El.
The exterior of the temple was redesigned following the 1965 fire, but still incorporates the same elements, including the sculpture, Pillar of Fire, by Ibram Lassaw. The roof comes to a point, under which the sculpture is centered in a deep recess, and the eaves flair to meet the side walls at a perpendicular angle to accommodate an adequate drainage system. The façade consists of multi-colored bricks in earth tones, with four pillars on each side of the sculpture, like four vertical stairs, that increases the play of light across the setting. The Pillar of Fire recalls the biblical story of the burning bush, and the ever-changing patterns created by the sculpture evoke tongues of fire and flickering light.
First structure: Completed August 1953
Second (CURRENT) structure: September 1966 -- May 1968
Temple Beth El, at 979 Dickinson Street in Springfield is located on a sprawling 12 acre site that sits against Forest Park and contains one of the brooks feeding Porter Lake which sits within the park. The area is surrounded by typical suburban America, with housing developments to the north, south, and east of the property, and an elementary school, golf course, and several grocery stores and restaurants within two miles of Temple Beth El.
A major part of Goodman’s architectural philosophy was to use local materials and local artistry. He believed that this resulted in a strong “sense of place”, and can be seen in the utilization of local artists in the limited interior and exterior details.
Temple Beth El exemplifies the social aspect of its congregation and encourages the sense of community necessary to any congregation.
The Beth El congregation of Springfield was established in 1913, in the stream of Conservative (Traditional) Judaism. As a modern sect of Judaism, the congregation had different needs than their Orthodox brothers for their religious structures. Examples include the removal of the women’s gallery, which usually seated women on a separate level from the main floor of the sanctuary. This removal and integration of women into the congregation meant more floor space was needed in the main sanctuary. Another change to the Orthodox synagogue plan was the movement of the bimah from the center of the sanctuary to a side where it could still face westward to Jerusalem, and reflected the change of focus from the ritual of reading of the Torah to sermonizing. This removal allowed for a small increase in the number of seats in the main sanctuary. Before 1945, there was no unifying architecture for Jewish synagogues. Rather, synagogues were built in styles based in local tradition, unrelated to any traditional Jewish architecture. In the recent past they sought more to blend in than stand out, and when combined with an urban environment with restrictive lot sizes, there was little room for the development of Jewish expression. Goodman started designing synagogues in 1948, and quickly established a reputation as a leading designer and architect of synagogues in the United States. He chose modernist style because of the lack of Jewish architectural tradition, and believed that as an architect, his job was to design not just for a client’s wants, but for their needs. As a modernist architect, Goodman was a firm believer in “form follows function”, a cornerstone in the Modern style. Here, Goodman found more flexibility to design something that best served the function for his clients, and to express a distinct Jewish style. In the design of Temple Beth El, Goodman incorporated spaces for the three main elements required of his clients, a community and social space, a temple space, and an educational space. One major obstacle that had to be overcome, and that Goodman had previous success with, was creating a religious space intimate enough for weekly services yet large enough for holiday services through the use of movable partitions and heavy curtains. Another key element in Goodman’s design was the use of works by contemporary Jewish artists in modest decoration of the exterior and interior spaces of the synagogue. These include ritual the ark tapestry by Robert Motherwell, sculptures by Ibram Lassaw, and tapestries by Adoloph Gottlieb, most of which were destroyed by fire in 1965. In his long career as an architect, Percival Goodman strove to create a unique style for the Jewish community, who were “struggling to maintain their religious community in an increasingly secularized culture.” The use of a modern style rather than a historic style gave the structure a true expressive style, rather than a faked one which results from a new building in an old style.
Prior to 1945, there was no specific stylistic architectural tradition for Jewish synagogues, unlike Islam and certain sects of Christianity. Synagogue architecture took its influence from other religious buildings and local architectural traditions. There was a lack of identity in their structures, something that Goodman sought to change as an architect and a Jew.
Goodman and other modern architects sought to remove “cultural dishonesty, snobbery, and shame of physical function” be designing buildings to reflect their function. To Goodman, there was a “deep and subtle connection” between the built environment and the human activity it contained, and that one could read the social values of a society based on their city and building plans. By taking a new approach in synagogue design, Goodman was proclaiming in the wake of Hitler and the Holocaust, that the Jewish community was a proud, strong community that would not be forced to disappear.
Percival Goodman’s use of modern architectural principles in synagogues has been emulated by his contemporaries, and has influenced the architecture of many denominations through the years. In addition to being a professor at Columbia University’s architecture school from 1946 to 1971, and an influential architect, Goodman was a writer, planner and an artist. The ideas penned with his brother, Paul, in “Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life” influenced generations of planners and architects “and became an important catalyst of ideas in the 1960s and early 1970s about participatory architecture, cooperative living, environmental design, and the design professional as an advocate for improved social conditions.” His ideas and works continue to influence the fields of architecture, planning, and sustainability. His life and career was the subject of a retrospective exposition in 2001 at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery.
Temple Beth El is an underappreciated 20th century landmark. It is a significant work of Percival Goodman with a pioneering style. The overall plan is a result of Goodman’s early years in synagogue design, but is unique from his others in that Goodman was able to return to the design and make significant alterations after the initial structure was destroyed in a fire. The architecture of Temple Beth El has had a lasting effect on its congregation, who are actively seeking to preserve Goodman’s design and legacy as they take stock of their structure in 2013, the centennial of their congregation.
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