Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Philip Johnson figure prominently among 20th-century architects who designed outstanding contemporary synagogues. But it was a lesser-known figure, Percival Goodman, who for better or worse did the most to recast the American Jewish house of prayer in a modernist vein. Between 1948 and 1983, Goodman designed more than 50 temples around the United States, making him the most prolific architect in Jewish history. His extraordinary career is recalled in an exhibition on view through March 31 at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery.
Working with artists such as Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and Helen Frankenthaler, Goodman created high-style temples that offered a bold vision of communal space for post-Holocaust American Jewry. Goodman also co-wrote several works with his brother, Paul Goodman (who became a father figure of the New Left in the 1960s), including a seminal volume on cities titled “Communitas.”
After studying at Paris’s Ecole des Beaux Arts, Goodman designed sleek art deco interiors for department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller and I. Magnin. He drew up swank apartments at New York’s Pierre Hotel and on Park Avenue as well as country retreats for wealthy clients such as J.M. Kaplan, owner of the Welch’s Grape Juice Co.
But Goodman was not without a keen social conscience and utopian aspirations; left-leaning sympathies led him to design a 1930 proposal for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Columbia University architectural historian Kenneth Frampton ranks Goodman’s Moscow entry alongside the celebrated submission by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret.
The Holocaust awakened Goodman’s sense of Jewish identity — he once characterized himself as “an agnostic who was converted by Hitler.” In 1949, his scheme was chosen for the “American Memorial to Six Million Jews of Europe” in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. The structure — with a 25-foot-high wall stretching 120 feet long, crowned by a 45-foot pedestal and memorial — was never built because New York officials feared that its sheer visibility would distract drivers on the Henry Hudson Parkway.
It was a 1947 conference sponsored by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to improve the quality of religious architecture that launched Goodman’s career as a synagogue designer. In a presentation titled “The Holiness of Beauty,” he told the assembled rabbis, congregational staff and board members that the prevailing tendency to design in imitation of churches or even old synagogues was a great mistake and that modernist architecture was best suited to nurturing contemporary Jewish communities. Commissions to design new homes for the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Temple Beth El in Providence, R.I., swiftly followed.
Before 1945, most American synagogues were built in historical styles such as Moorish, neoclassical and colonial, and as such these had little to do with Jewish faith or tradition. “Imitation cannot be as good as the real thing and so is an abomination,” Goodman said. “In design and structure, the work must be of our time.”
As prosperity fueled an influx to the suburbs following World War II, American Jews built an unprecedented number of new synagogues. In 1949, Goodman and his brother wrote in Commentary magazine that there were 1,800 new temples in the planning stages. Many were freestanding buildings removed from dense urban settings and reachable only by automobile. Goodman responded to the buildings’ surroundings with an array of attention-getting designs, often using pleated or arched roofs to suggest the tents in which Jews journeyed through the Egyptian desert.
Working with Reform, Conservative and some Orthodox congregations, Goodman’s commissions ranged from the intimate Fifth Avenue Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the large-scale, theatrical Temple Beth El in Rochester, N.Y. Plans and photographs of five of his synagogues are presented in the Columbia exhibition, including his most daring and monumental—Congregation Sha’arey Zedek near Detroit, with its prow-like concrete roof that soars 100 feet above the bima and a backdrop reminiscent of Mount Sinai. The Sha’arey Zedek design was also reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed peaked sanctuary at Elkins Park, Pa., which had been built a few years earlier.
“Goodman had to be looking over his shoulder to see what Frank Lloyd Wright, Gropius, Johnson and all those other people were doing,” said Samuel Gruber, an architectural historian who heads the International Survey of Jewish Monuments. And although Goodman significantly reshaped the spaces in which American Jews gather to celebrate and commemorate, the totality of his designs has not been universally acclaimed. “Some are exceptional, but many of them are quite mundane” from today’s perspective, Mr. Gruber said.
Goodman’s synagogues were not only places of worship but community centers that joined prayer with educational and social activities. He popularized the flexible plan, first employed in 1946 by the German-Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn at St. Louis’s Congregation B’nai Amoona, which allowed large crowds to be accommodated on the High Holy Days by opening up folding walls between sanctuaries and adjacent social halls. Goodman also stressed the use of natural light and was one of the first synagogue architects to integrate modern sculpture and other abstract artworks, commissioning lobby murals, ark curtains and ritual objects.
The scores of designs for which Goodman was responsible reflect not just progressive taste but a generally liberal political stance as well. In “To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A.” (Free Press, 1994), Deborah Dash Moore, a professor of religion at Vassar College, writes that Rabbi Leon Kronish of Miami Beach hoped that Goodman’s innovative design for Temple Beth Sholom would encapsulate a contemporary and liberal form of Judaism for those seeking religious roots. Kronish, in a bid to appeal to Jewish newcomers to South Florida, blended commitment to Israel and social justice with updated ritual practices.
Temple Beth Sholom was completed in 1954 after the rabbi declared his intention to create new rites “that would win the hearts of the masses.” Goodman did his bit by creating a temple with an exotic appearance suited to the tropical setting. Fronting a waterway and surrounded by palms, the sanctuary has a smoothly curved roof of thin-shell reinforced concrete that gives it a futuristic, Jetson-like air. “The danger of this approach is that what is modern one day can in a short time come to be seen as dated and corny,” Mr. Gruber said.
In addition to his work as a synagogue architect, Goodman spent more than 25 years as a professor at the Columbia University architecture school. He died in 1989 at age 85, and some of those who studied under him see his teaching legacy outlasting the merits of his buildings. “History may not be kind to Percival Goodman Architect,” Peter Eisenman, the designer of Berlin’s new Holocaust memorial, writes in the exhibition catalogue. “But it cannot reveal nor take away what he gave to me and his other students.”