The building served as the first permanent home of Congregation Habonim. When the Reform Jewish congregation was first founded in New York on November 10, 1939, it used space provided by the Central Synagogue at 652 Lexington Avenue, as well as the 1500-seat Town Hall on West 55th Street for the High Holy Days. In 1945, the congregation moved its services again to the True Sisters Building on West 85th Street. Four years later a contract was signed to build a new religious property on the site of three row houses at 42-46 West 66th Street. The renowned architect Fritz Nathan was to design the temple. On March 30, 1952, the congregation’s rabbi Hugo Hahn, its president Gustav Jacoby, and the then-Borough President Robert R. Wagner, Jr. presided over the groundbreaking ceremony. However, differences of opinion between Fritz Nathan and the leaders of Habonim delayed construction and Mr. Nathan eventually withdrew from the project, which was stalled for four years. Architect Stanley Prowler and Associate Architect Frank Faillace submitted new designs for the synagogue in April 1956, and the building was completed in January 1958, at a cost of $450,000.
The synagogue faces northeast and is situated on a lot 100’-5” x 74’-9”. The exterior and lobby walls are clad in white-glazed brick with heavy black specks (Hanley Brick Co. #729 “Duramic”) arranged in a running bond. From West 66th Street, the facade visually indicates the building’s two principal components. To the left is the lobby, which is indicated by three entrance doors below polished plate-glass windows with stainless steel mullion covers. 8”-high bronze letters spell out the congregation’s name above the doors. To the right is the sanctuary, which features a flat wall of 2”-thick limestone facing with flush joints. 4”-high bronze letters spell the following inscription in both Hebrew and English: “UNLESS THE LORD BUILDS THE HOUSE, THOSE WHO BUILD IT LABOR IN VAIN. PSALM 127:1.” The wall is interrupted by an angled stained-glass and stainless steel prow that cuts through the center. Each side of the prow features additional stained-glass windows divided by metal mullions. There is a 2’-8” wide planting area in front of the building, and the basement windows feature modern geometric grilles.
The two-story lobby features ruby-glazed mosaic-tile walls, white-terrazzo floor panels bordered by white alloy zinc strips, aluminum handrails, and glass balconies. The 17°-high sanctuary and social hall can be combined into one large space through a system of movable wooden folding partitions. The triangle-shaped bema forms the prow shape on the exterior. The bema’s bordering walls feature fireproof walnut spandrels and mullions that frame thirteen abstracted, multicolored stained-glass windows that allow morning light to stream into the space. The sanctuary also contains a curved wooden Ark in the corner of the bema, and stained glass windows on the upper part of the east wall.
At the time of construction, Congregation Habonim replaced three out of a group of four 5-story row houses on the south side of West 66th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. On the south side of 66th Street from west to east were two 5-story row houses, the 102nd Medical Battalion Armory (Horgan & Slattery, 1900-1903), the 3-story American Broadcast Company Building, a horse-riding school housed in a 3-story row house, a 3-story garage, 5-story garage, a 6-story storage building, four 5-story row houses, and an 18-story apartment building at 55 Central Park West (Schwartz & Gross, 1930). On the north side of 66th Street from west to east were two 2-story buildings, the St. Nicholas Arena, a 6-story garage, three 5-story row houses, a 7-story art studio building, the American Broadcast Television Center, and a 16-story apartment building at 65 Central Park West. With the exception of the apartments on Central Park west and the Armory, all the congregation’s original neighboring buildings were either demolished or heavily altered.
The foundations and floors are constructed of concrete slabs. The building has an underlying steel structure. Horizontal I-beams encased in concrete support the upper floor. The exterior walls are composed of concrete blocks faced in glazed brick. The thinner, interior walls are cinderblock faced in either wood or brick. The flat roof features five-ply rubberoid roofing, and the roof edges have either glazed terra cotta, limestone, or cast-stone coping.
Congregation Habonim exemplifies the postwar architectural and social trends that gave rise to the modern American synagogue. In 1948, the Supreme Court declared restrictive residential covenants illegal, and suburban communities became open to American Jews for the first time. During the extensive post-World War II suburbanization across the United States, it was observed that war veterans and newlyweds who moved to the outskirts of cities wanted access to community centers just as much as they wanted their own home. Religious institutions responded to this trend by proposing new houses of worship that would include social, recreational and educational facilities. Hebrew schools received particular attention as cultural bulwarks against the assimilation of suburban life. To help cover the cost of these separate facilities, community centers offered a mixture of secular and religious events. Rabbis now served both as social directors as well as spiritual teachers.
One of the earliest planning ideas for this new architecture was put forward by architect Ben Bloch in 1944. Bloch proposed a flexible synagogue plan with a sanctuary and a social hall joined by movable partitions that could accommodate an overflow of attendees. In 1945, the Interdenominational Bureau of Architecture published Planning of Churches, which advocated for entering the nave or prayer hall from an interior common lobby as opposed to a monumental street entrance, so the worship space could be integrated into the congregation’s community life. Similar proposals were made the following year by the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Conservative United Synagogue of America. The structure and plan of the synagogues of the late 1940s and early 1950s also placed changing gender relations in architectural terms by eliminating the traditional two-tier seating arrangement that divided men from women. This trend could be observed in Reform, Conservative, and even in new Orthodox synagogues.
Although Congregation Habonim was not built in the suburbs, Architect Stanley Prowler must have been aware of these architectural tendencies. The synagogue features a sanctuary and community hall that can become one space by removing wooden partitions, the place of worship is entered from a free-flowing common lobby, an emphasis is placed on classroom space, and the seating arrangement is egalitarian with no separate section for women.
Habonim’s design is distinctly modern and could represent one kind of end result of American Jews’ quest to find an appropriate architectural style for their houses of worship. During the Nineteenth Century, both American and European Jews sought to distinguish their temple designs from Christian styles, especially the Gothic. Congregations experimented with Greco-Roman classicism, the Egyptian Revival, and the Moorish style. In the years after World War II, American synagogue architects such as Eric Mendelsohn (1887-1953) and Percival Goodman (1904-1989) began constructing sanctuaries that placed a greater focus on overall form and eliminated any applied historical ornament. Designers now utilized volume for symbolic association, and frequently chose building profiles that simulated mountains or tents. Architects avoided axial symmetry for the structure as a whole, but gave a symmetrical treatment to the facades of the more significant building units, such as the sanctuary. While historicist architectural decoration was completely purged, interior decoration, including symbolic sculpture, mosaics, tapestries, or ritual lamps integrated into the architectural design, was being used at an increasing rate to provide punctuated accents to enliven the space. Progressive architectural critics praised the modern synagogue styles in magazines and newspapers, which helped increase their popularity. The repetition of the aforementioned stylistic trends helped give the postwar American synagogue a recognizable style. Congregation Habonim reflects these stylistic changes. Its aesthetic strength relies on its manipulation of form. The use of simple, durable-looking materials such as brick and limestone give it a solid presence. Through its modest proportions and use of pure forms, the synagogue has a greater sense of being approachable and is built on a more human scale. Habonim’s overall composition is asymmetrical, while the sanctuary’s frontage is designed with more axial symmetry. The building eschews historic ornament inside and out, while placing emphasis on the decorative artworks on display. These include Emanuel Milstein’s sculpture, Memorial to the Six Million, composed of stones from over twelve synagogues destroyed on Kristallnacht. The deep ruby mosaic walls and polychrome stained glass help to enrich the attendee’s experience in an otherwise austere interior.
On November 9, 1938, the Nazis embarked on a national campaign to vandalize and destroy synagogues across the Third Reich. One was the Essen Synagogue, where Hugo Hahn had served as the rabbi since 1921. Over the next year, German-Jewish immigration to the United States was at its peak, and Rabbi Hahn founded Congregation Habonim (Hebrew for “the builders”) in New York one year after the tragedy in Germany. At this time many refugees gravitated to their former rabbis to reestablish a sense of community. Instead, Hahn’s newly-formed congregation sought to attract liberal Jews from all parts of Germany and all sections of New York City. Since most of Habonim’s members were German Jews, the congregation published bulletins and newsletters in both English and German and held certain portions of the service in English and German. Additionally, religious education for children was originally taught in German.
From its inception, Congregation Habonim placed an emphasis on the connection between tradition, worship and education. The day after the congregation’s first service, Dr. Eduard Strauss, one of the former members of the Frankfurt Lehrhaus (a Jewish center for learning and discussion founded by Franz Rosenzweig in Berlin in 1920) took the immediate step of establishing an American version. The new Lehrhaus, spearheaded by Dr. Strauss, Rabbi Hahn and Fritz Schwarzschild, embarked on a series of religious, cultural, historical, and educational projects. Dr. Max Weiner, a former Berlin rabbi gave Sunday morning lectures, Dr. Strauss gave bible courses, and the congregation hosted renowned musicians such as Webster Aitken, Robert Goldsand and Helen Schnabel who performed the complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas. Various intellectual luminaries presented lectures from different fields at the congregation. Perhaps Habonim’s proudest moment during its early years was when Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the congregation in 1955, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.
Music was another essential component to religious life at Habonim from the beginning. Starting in 1940, Cantor Erwin Hirsch led services accompanied by choral singing, with participation by the congregation. Hirsch managed to juxtapose the melodies of nineteenth-century Jewish composers such as Louis Lewandowsky and Salomon Sulzer with works of then-contemporary composers such as Herbert Fromm and Heinrich Schalit. In the plan for the Habonim’s new synagogue, architect Stanley Prowler included a room for the congregation’s choir in the space created by the intersection of the triangular bema and the front facade that is parallel with the street. While in the sanctuary, it appears as if there is no space beyond the angled walls around the bema. This provides the illusion that the voices are disembodied and have no specific source, which lends a greater spiritual aura to the sacred space.
While Congregation Habonim has no formal protection, it has managed to be well-maintained and continues to serve its primary function.
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