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Window designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.Taleisin House and Studio photo by Rhonda Spivak

Fireplace in Social Hall, Unity Temple, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. photo by Rhonda Spivak

Unity temple. photo by Rhonda Spivak

The playroom in Frank Lloyd Wright's Taleisn studio. photo by Rhonda Spivak


Unity by Rhonda Spivak

Editor's Report from Unity Temple in Chicago: Examining Frank Lloyd Wright's Anti-semitism

by Rhonda Spivak, March 3, 2015



When I was in Chicago this past May, I went to see the original Taliesin house and studio of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and afterward walked to see Unity Temple, a church Wright designed which is the only surviving public building from Wright's "Prairie period". (It was Declared a United States National Historic Landmark in 1970.)


I have always loved Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture and as I meandered around Unity Temple, admiring the high sky-lit spaces (one for worship and one for the congregation's social gatherings), I began wondering if Wright had ever designed a synagogue. If so, I assumed it would be a synagogue really worth seeing.


With that in mind, later on back in my hotel, I decided to surf the net and see what I could find out about Wright and his relationship to Jews--and what I discovered was in fact rather troubling, and though I can't help but admire Wright's architecture, I think I now like it less than I did before.


In researching the subject, I found an article by  David Obst in the Santa Barbara Independent from 2006  about a book by Roger Friedlan and architect Harold Zellman entitled "The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship." In reviewing the book, Obst wrote: 


"The authors’ insights into who Frank Lloyd really was are both insightful and pretty scary. Wright was the Mel Gibson of his era, but his anti-Semitism had to be kept under control since a majority of his clients were Jewish. Not only did Wright publicly endorse Charles Lindberg and Henry Ford’s political charges blaming the Jews for America’s entry into WWII, but when provoked, Wright would resort to anti-Semitic screeds. For example, when an apprentice came in over-bid to construct an exhibition, Wright sniped: “Let your beard grow back and go on being a rabbi.” The apprentice, while Jewish, was not a rabbi.


Gavriel Rosenberg, an associate professor of history at Fairfield University wrote in an article in the Forward in 2012, "As several recent studies have shown, Wright was known for harboring anti-Semitic views." As Rosenberg detailed Wright "often hurled anti-Semitic invective at Jewish employees at his Taliesin house and studio" and "made anti-Jewish remarks about Jewish architectural colleagues, such as Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler," that he "sympathized with the anti-Semitic and isolationist ideas of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh before and during World War II (Wright’s charge that Jews were warmongers cost him his friendship with Lewis Mumford)."


In another example of his anti-semitism, Wright was contacted by Albert McArthur in connection with the building of the Arizona Biltmore hotel. As Wikipedia says, " Albert had married the daughter of a wealthy Jewish chocolatier while studying in Vienna; true to his lifelong anti-semitism Wright always referred to Albert's son as Jew-boy."


And yet, despite this anti-semitism, Wright in fact contacted by Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen in November 1953 about designing a new sanctuary for his conservative congregation, Beth Sholom, in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park. (Although nothing I have read indicates whether Cohen was aware of Wright's anti-semitic comments.) Wright had never designed a synagogue since beginning his architectural career in 1893, 60 years earlier, as is indicated in architectural historian Joseph M. Siry’s book, “Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture.” Wright accepted the commission and his design of Beth Shalom synagogue occurred near the end of his life (he died only months before its dedication in 1959). Both Wright and Cohen referred to the breathtaking and awe inspiring Beth Shalom synagogue structure as a “traveling Mount Sinai of light”. To see a photo of it, click here:


Cohen played a key role in designing the new synagogue and wanted it to look and feel of a modern building.


In his very interesting article in the Forward, Rosenberg explores the question of why it took Wright 60 years to design his first synagogue. After detailing Wright's anti-semitism, Rosenberg wonders whether his anti-semitism was the reason why Wright had never before designed a synagogue, and whether Wright finally did so as a way of atoning for his anti-semitic past after the Holocaust. As Rosenberg writes, "Might he [Wright] have rejected synagogue commissions out of prejudice? Alternatively, might Jewish congregations have stayed away from hiring him as a result of his reputation? To be sure, Wright worked for many Jewish clients (most famously Edgar J. Kaufmann and Solomon Guggenheim) but he did so always on secular projects. This changed only after World War II, with the Beth Sholom commission.


Did the legacy of the war and the Holocaust play a role in leading Wright to change course? Given the fact that Philip Johnson designed the famous Port Chester, N.Y., synagogue Kneses Tifereth Israel around the same time for free, partly as a gesture of atonement for his own anti-Semitic past, it is not inconceivable that Wright might have had similar feelings about his wartime position and therefore took on the Beth Sholom project to help rehabilitate himself."


What has intrigued me even further is the contents of Paul Goldberger's remarks that were delivered at Beth Sholom's 5oth Anniversary celebrations, in which amazingly Goldberg says he knows of "no evidence of anti-semitism" on the part of Frank Lloyd Wright: 


"Wright had no connections to speak of to the Jewish community. He had a few Jewish clients, most famously Edgar Kaufmann, the Pittsburgh department store owner who commissioned the great house Fallingwater, but this was incidental. In fact, given Wright’s isolationist tendencies, he may even have had some ties to groups that were quite decidedly un-Jewish, though I know of no evidence of anti-Semitism on his part"


Moreover, in his remarks Goldberger says that after he agreed to design the synagogue  Wright spoke at  a fundraising dinner and Goldberger quotes Wright as having said that he had "been asked to design a Jewish synagogue once or twice before… and I have always declined. I said I would design an American Synagogue for Jews in America, but I would not design a Jewish Synagogue."


Goldberger asks what Wright meant when he said, "I  would not design a Jewish synagogue”  and he answers, "To some extent it was just Wright’s way of saying that he would not design a traditional building—his way of making it absolutely clear that he wouldn’t design whatever the Jewish equivalent of a Gothic church would be. It’s not an anti-Semitic remark, which I suppose it could be mistaken for, though it is certainly an impolitic one, and something you could never imagine an architect saying today.

But let’s accept the notion that this was simply Wright’s way of agreeing with what Rabbi Cohen had said to him about designing a synagogue that would express the American spirit as well as be fully appropriate for Jewish liturgy, and of confirming that he would interpret this as giving him license not to design a traditional synagogue—as if anyone would have expected for a minute that Wright would design a traditional synagogue."


Given Goldberger has already said he knows of no evidence of Wright's anti-semitism, it's not surprising that he also explained away Wright's remark that he would not "design a Jewish synagogue" as impolitic but not anti-semitic. 


Interestingly Goldberger claims that the origins of Wright's design for the synagogue are from "a scheme Wright had come up with thirty years before, in the nineteen twenties, for a cathedral of steel and glass to be built in New York City,"  and do not originate in Jewish liturgy and the Mount Sinai metaphor.


And sure enough according to Goldberger elements of the Unity Temple in Chicago that I visited appear in Wright's design of Beth Shalom synagogue:


"... there is also visible here some of his Unity Temple, an incomparably great building in which the subtle manipulation of light also plays an essential role. So, too, does approach: at Unity Temple, you ascend to the worship space, entering under a relatively low ceiling and experiencing the space expand magnificently as you move into the sanctuary. Wright picked up on this aspect of Unity Temple here at Beth Sholom, but of course in a very different way, with the spectacular effects of this brilliant tent of glass, which bursts on you with a resounding power."


Thus, I found the answer to the question of whether Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed a synagogue, and you can bet that should I ever be in Philadelphia I definitely would make a point of seeing it.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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