Temple Beth Zion
Originally constructed in 1890 at 599 Delaware Ave, Buffalo, NY, the original Temple Beth Zion was designed by Edward A. and William Kent. The building was constructed for the Jewish reform congregation branch, which, established in 1863, was the largest congregation of Jewish people in Western New York and represented one of the oldest reform Jewish congregations in the United States. The design was a Byzantine revival constructed out of Medina brownstones, and showcased a copper dome. This original incarnation of Temple Beth Zion was occupied until 1961, when routine maintenance on the pews resulted in a dangerous combination of fumes that ignited, incinerating the temple.
Following Temple Beth Zion's destruction, there was lengthy discussion about where the replacement should be constructed. Four sites were considered: 805 Delaware, Delaware and Nottingham, Main Street between Fairlawn and Getzville, and on the ashes of the original temple site. 805 Delaware, a combination of several parcels, offered a large site, numerous points of access, and excellent street visibility; this was countered by a hefty price tag of $650,000. Delaware and Nottingham, a compilation of seven parcels, was a more suburban site sporting a significantly lower price of $447,000. On January 14, 1962, after little debate among members of the temple board, the site at 805 Delaware was selected as the preliminary choice and proposed to the congregation. The congregation, having no notable objections to the selection, the project moved forward.
Following the site selection, an initial project estimate was conducted and it calculated an expected cost of $2,840,000. Insurance settlements from the fire, coupled with the sale of the original property at 599 Delaware Ave, gave the congregation a sum of $1,160,000 towards the construction of the new temple. With $1,680,000 to raise, the property was seen as within an attainable budget, and the project moved onto architect selection. Approximately twenty architects were considered and interviewed by the architect selection committee. Leader of the committee, Paul Cohen, had a strong desire to choose an architect with a national reputation. Of those considered for the position, three architects were from Buffalo, two from Rochester, five were not local, but had extensive temple experience, and the remaining were of repute either nationally or internationally. Specifically considered for the project by Cohen and the committee were Gordon Bunshaft of SOM, Minoru Yamasaki, Marcel Breuer, Edward Durrell Stone, Tietro Belluschi, William Lescaze, and Max Abramovitz. Bunshaft was rejected for his apparent lack of follow through, Yamasaki was considered too busy to take on the project, Breuer was rejected for requesting unacceptable relocation considerations, Stone was found to have insufficient time to complete the project, and Belluschi and Lescaze were not selected for unknown reasons. Abramovitz was interviewed and chose to display his firm's work at the United Nations, Rockefeller Center, and Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. On April 15, 1962, Max Abramovitz, a partner at the firm Harrison & Abramovitz, was selected by Cohen and the committee to be the architect for the project. What solidified Abramovitz's selection was his reassurance that the Temple would have his full and personal attention.
Eight months following Abramovitz's selection, the preliminary design for the new Temple Beth Zion at 805 Delaware Avenue was presented to the board and accepted unquestioningly. However, on April 15, 1962, renderings of the proposed site were published in the news and received significant backlash from the community due to poor public opinion. This response was strong enough to cause Cohen and the board to reconsider the design, which they communicated to Abramovitz following the reaction. In the end, the original design is what was built, without any consideration taken from the public response. On June 24, 1964, just two years after the initial renderings reached the public for the first time, the ground breaking ceremony for Temple Beth Zion was held.
According to John Laping, Abramovitz saw an opportunity to, “sustain the legacy of the Beth Zion as a vital force in the life of Buffalo and they saw an opportunity to leave something better than they found.” (Laping, 2007) The building is ensconced in symbolism from the ten scallops on its majestic exterior to the material choices both outside and within. The modern design eloquently marries the strength of tradition, found in the massive and rough quality of the exterior walls, with the modern design symbols representing the forward thinking, acceptance, and tolerance of the congregation from its establishment in 1863 to present. The way in which the building embodies the religious intent of the congregation underlines the commitment of the people and their support of one another.
Located on a direct route to downtown, the collection of 3 parcels combine into a large corner lot. Temple Beth Zion is a complex consisting of 4 interconnected buildings: The Sanctuary, the Sisterhood Chapel, The Rabbi Joseph L. Fink Auditorium, and The Benjamin and Dr. Edgar R. Cofeld Judaic Museum. The Santuary is the “cupcake-like” structure which sits facing Delaware Avenue, protruding forward most to the street. To the east, The Sanctuary is connected by a corridor to the northern end of the museum, a rectilinear building oriented mostly north-south. At the southern end of the museum, the Sisterhood Chapel and the auditorium project perpendicularly, the former on the west side, the latter on the east. Identified by its scalloped poured concrete walls, adorned with Alabama limestone, the Sanctuary dominates the building grounds. The massive concrete walls angle outward toward the sky at 15 degrees, in the form of arms held in prayer, and each of the ten scallops (on either side) represent the ten commandments. The west entrance is distinguished by the colorful stained glass windows and large overhang, covering part of the expansive concrete landscape. The east entrance also has a large stained glass window above, however, this entrance leads to the museum. Positioned facing Delaware Avenue and as the tallest building, the Sanctuary acts as the dominant structure on the site. Architecturally, the Sanctuary is the most significant building of the complex, representing the most innovative use of materials, construction technique and Brutalist representation.
The exterior concrete walls were poured in place using rebar reinforcing and wood form work. The walls were poured in three stages, altering sides so that the surrounding structure and sub structure could be build in tandem. The walls are supported below by a foundation pedestal 50 feet below grade. The walls are three feet thick at the base, and 11 inches thick at its highest point. The interior surface of the walls were bush-hammered to remove 1/4” to obtain the rough antique appearance. The wooden formwork anchor holes were left for both appearance and acoustical properties. as the project engineer Ron Shreiber described, the formwork “molds” were far more complicated than the actual structure design.
The pillars at the Delaware entrance were poured in place, reinforced concrete pillars. Journeyman carpenters were hired to build the formwork, which was allowed to create a wood grained, paneled texture on the concrete surface. Alabama limestone veneer was applied to the exterior surface of the exterior walls. Each slab weighs at least a ton and are anchored to the concrete walls.
805 Delaware Ave. is located at the corner of Delaware Ave and Barker St in Buffalo, New York. The site was originally 3 parcels of land, purchased by the congregation, each of which had building on them that were torn down to accommodate the new complex. The Temple Beth Zion site is located approximately 1.5 miles from Buffalo's Niagara Square, a historically relevant location with buildings that include the art deco City Hall and the 1923 Statler Hotel. The Temple Beth Zion's concrete construction sits among some of the oldest and largest brick residences in Buffalo from the early twentieth century. Even though the context contrasts the Brutalist style, the Temple Beth Zion Sanctuary has an elegance to allow it to blend into the historical district by which it is encompassed.
Abramovitz was very familiar with the use of poured concrete in architectural expression, especially evident in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Assembly Hall and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Philharmonic Hall. Despite the consistency in his material choice and aesthetic, he did attempt to achieve new greatness and innovations, but not at the cost of conscientious design. Abramovitz once said, “I am not interested in being a pioneer in technology or construction, if being a pioneer means only analyzing and searching out technical innovations. I want to know all about the latest advances. In fact, I am most eager to know them and to use them; but the technical to me is essentially a servant, a tool, to further an idea.”
Because of the history of the Temple Beth Zion congregation, the need to adapt and its general outlook on acceptance of others, the congregation felt that the new building should reflect these ideals while maintaining a strong foundation in their faith. Combining with Abramovitz's high respect for synagogs and idea that they could be icons among religious architecture, the congregation sought to design a place of worship approachable to all and set an example as such. Successfully, Abramovitz achieved this attitude though the design and material use. He appreciated the spiritual intent of the building, the need to inspire people and bring them together in a place of worship, and through the use of symbolism and elegant gestures, Abramovitz emphasized the heavens, through natural light pouring into the space above the occupants, and provided a subtle reminder of the need for faith in heavy concrete material.
The Temple Beth Zion is a building very representative of the brutalist movement in symbolic intent and material use. Monolithic concrete walls with exposed aggregate and fastener holes reference typical simplistic, unadorned brutalist material approach, and allowing the symbolism to read through the form. The ten scallops along the exterior facade represent the 10 commandments and the slight outward angle represents arms raised in praise. Meanwhile, the rough face of the concrete reminds the congregation of its roots in antiquity. The juxtaposition of the skylights along the concrete walls compliments the architect's intent to emphasize the presence of God in the building, and reinforce the traditional outdoor worshiping style. Even at the dedication, the intent was evident, as expressed in the dedication brochure, “In creating a building that generates such a marvelous feeling of openness and lack of confinement, architect Max Abramovitz has reflected the spiritual freedom and individuality permitted the Jew as he embraces God.”
This building received both national and local praise for its beauty and progressive aesthetic stature. The architectural mindset at that time was focused on the need to find a modern aesthetic to represent traditional forms and cultural values. Locally, the design was not well received, initially. Because the congregation had such presence within Buffalo, the new construction gained quite a bit of local press and attention. Even though the local media attention was relatively unbiased, the public opinion, upon release of the rendering in the newspaper, was quite negative. After the building was constructed however, people were able to experience the simplistic grandeur and the local opinion changed.
Abramovitz's design remains as relevant today as it was in 1967. Its presence among the historical red brick clad mansions along Delaware Avenue is notable, and it stands as proudly as they do. In Buffalo, it is revered as one of the iconic religious buildings outside of New York City. Nationally, as a synagogue, it is considered as the best exemplification the modernist movement. The Temple Beth Zion was Abramovitz's first attempt in designing a synagogue, and can easily be considered one of his finest buildings. Such careful consideration was given to form and assembly detail, that the building emanates significant Jewish symbolism which pulses through the congregation. The building itself, being a standalone form and innovative design, represents the accepting nature of the congregation, as well as their constant forward thinking. It is evident that this building represents the exploratory mindset, innovative material techniques, and the intent to design with significance.
“Delaware Location Picked for Temple.” Buffalo Courier-Express 8 Feb. 1962.
“Gallery to Display Model of New Temple Beth Zion.” Buffalo Courier-Express 14 Nov. 1964.
Gruber, Samuel D., Paul Rocheleau (photography), and Scott J. Tilden (editor). American Synagoges: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.
LaChiusa, Chuck. “Temple Beth Zion – History.” Temple Beth Zion. Buffalo Architecture and History. Web. 8 Feb. 2014 .
Laping, John. “Temple Beth Zion: From 599 to 805 Delaware Avenue.” Temple Beth Zion. Buffalo Architecture and History. 20 Apr. 2007. Web. 8 Feb. 2014
Matthews, Anne McIlhenney. “Clergy to Tour New Temple.” Buffalo Courier-Express 28 Nov. 1966.
Matthews, Anne McIlhenney. “Sanctuary is Described.” Buffalo Courier-Express 28 Nov. 1966.