Nomination - Table of Contents   ..................  Temple Beth Zion -Table of Contents

Nomination - Temple Beth Zion
National Register of Historic Places Registration Form

By Francis R. Kowsky

Temple Beth Zion - OFFICIAL HOME PAGE

Max Abramovitz (1908-2004), Architect of the New Synagogue

When he signed on to design Temple Beth Zion in 1962, Max Abramovitz had earned a major place for himself in American commercial and institutional architecture as the partner of Wallace K. Harrison in the firm of Harrison & Abramovitz.

The son of Jewish immigrant parents who came to America from Romania, Abramovitz, who was born in 1908, grew up Chicago. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne in 1929 with an undergraduate degree in architecture, he went on to obtain a master’s degree in architecture at Columbia University in New York. After graduating from that venerable program in 1931, he obtained a fellowship that allowed him to study for two years in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts.

Back in New York, he joined Wallace K. Harrison (1895-1981) as a designer in the firm of Harrison & Fouilihoux. (J. Andre Fouilihoux was a French engineer.) In 1941, Abramovitz’s name was added to the partnership, and four years later, upon the death of Fouilihoux, the firm became Harrison & Abramovitz. The fruitful association lasted until Harrison retired in 1979, after which the firm was known as Abramovitz, Harris & Kingsland. (Abramovitz interrupted his professional career between 1942 and 1946 to serve in the military, two years of which were spent in China.) The Harrison and Abramovitz partnership grew to become one of the most successful corporate architectural firms in the United States. At the height of the national building boom of the mid-1960s, the firm employed over 200 people.               

The firm’s extensive portfolio included many of the major examples of the International Style architecture in America. As Harrison’s partner, Abramovitz was often the principal designer on significant projects. “He is best known,” stated his biographers John Harwood and Janet Parks, “for his association with some of New York’s most significant postwar building projects notably as the deputy director of planning for the United Nations Headquarters and as the architect of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center.” The list of the firm’s projects includes the Alcoa Building in Pittsburgh (1953), the United Nations Headquarters in New York (with others, 1953), the Corning Glass Center in Corning, New York (1953), the Socony-Mobil building in New York (1956), the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center (1959), the Loeb Student Center at New York University (1959), the Corning Glass Center, New York (1959), the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance building, Hartford, CT (1961), Columbia University’s East Campus and Law Center (1962), the Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1962), Hilles Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA (1964), the Fiberglass Tower, Toledo, OH (1969), the Krannert Art Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne (1969),the Erie County Savings Bank, Buffalo, NY (1969), the Nationwide Insurance building, Columbus, OH (1977), the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, (1979), and the Swiss Bank Tower, New York, NY (1989). Many of the firm’s commissions received national attention in the pages of important trade journals, as the Architectural Record and Progressive Architecture. A notable departure from the firm’s adherence to the International Style, the Neo-Expressionist Temple Beth Zion (1962), was the most significant synagogue that Abramovitz, a practicing member of the Jewish faith, had the opportunity to design.      

Many honors flowed to Max Abramowitz during his long and successful career. In 1952, he was elected Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; in 1961 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh; in 1970 he received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of Illinois; in 1975, the National Academy of Design presented him with its Gold Medal award; and in 1987 the New York Society of Architects bestowed upon him the prestigious Special Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Architectural Profession.        

Abramowitz expressed a simple design philosophy, once telling a reporter that when people asked why he planned a building in a certain way he felt that "it's the only way it should have been done." He also noted that a building "should be one of the visual joys of society. The man in the street should get a kick out of it." (Randy Kennedy, "Max Abramovitz, 96, Architect of Avery Fisher Hall, Dies," New York Times, September 15, 2004.)   A quiet man who was described as a workaholic, Abramovitz most enjoyed intimate social gatherings at his home in New York, where he had amassed a collection of paintings and sculptures.       

Physically, Abramovitz was described as "a thoughtful, rather finely wrought man with clear blue eyes under heavy brows and long, delicate lashes. He has strong fingers, the nails square-tipped. He was born left-handed, but taught himself (under some pressure) to use his right hand. As a result, he is substantially ambidextrous—a quality that has served him both on the hand ball court and at the drafting table." ("Designer for Listening, Max Abramovitz,”"New York Times, December 2, 1959.)



Evolution of the Design and Construction, April 1962-April 1967    

Once the architecture committee had done its work and Abramovitz had signed the contract, he became responsible to the building committee. The architect immediately got to work on plans for the new complex. In May, 1962, the local press reported that he expected to be finished within six months. In October, when asked again to reveal details of his preliminary plans, Abramovitz declined to be more specific other than to state "as in close contact with the building committee, which was headed by Milton Friedman. "Something like this," he said, "evolves out of discussions and we work very closely with the board." (“Final Synagogue Plans Promised by the End of the Year,” Buffalo Evening News, October 8, 1962.)   He promised that preliminary plans would be ready by the end of 1962. Abramovitz met this deadline, and in February 1963, the building committee approved his preliminary plans. (See "Beth Zion Temple, Buffalo, New York, job no. N-303" in the Abramovitz manuscript collection at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, for 39 blueprints and 21 structural and mechanical sepia prints for Temple Beth Zion dated March 20, 1964.)           
        The layout of the Temple Beth Zion complex adheres to an established pattern in postwar synagogue design. It consisted of grouping the predominate temple with a smaller chapel and school and offices adjacent to an open court-like space. Eric Mendelsohn’s Park Synagogue in Cleveland of 1922 is generally credited with pioneering the synagogue plan that Abramovitz followed, utilizing a courtyard as a unifying landscape element. The particular arrangement of the Buffalo building, however, may well have had a secular precedent. The U-shaped arrangement of the synagogue, school, and chapel around a central space facing a major thoroughfare recalls the plan of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Broadway in New York. As the designer of Philharmonic Hall there and a member of the general design team for Lincoln Center, Abramovitz would have been thoroughly familiar with that great undertaking. Such a layout was also expressive of the more open nature of Judaism that Rabbi Fink and his Reform Temple Beth Zion congregation would have wished to present to the world. As a tribute to the sanctuary’s ecumenical expression, dedication ceremonies included participants from a number of Protestant and Catholic communities. These groups had also aided the congregation after fire had destroyed its earlier home.
Although later modified in details, the program that Abramovitz laid out for the buildings and site, which he illustrated in a perspective drawing dated February 1963, would guide construction in the coming years. Thoughtfully meeting the congregation’s functional requirements, Abramovitz introduced a powerful new image of spiritual expression into the city’s religious architecture. In addition, as Edward Kent’s earlier synagogue had done, the new complex contributed a notable specimen of architecture to the streetscape of the city’s most prominent thoroughfare.       

After the building committee signed construction contracts with Siegfried Construction Company of Buffalo in May 1964, the new facility moved steadily toward completion. Groundbreaking ceremonies, attended by the architect, took place on June 24, 1964. In fall of that year, the public got a good idea of how the new building, which was well underway, would look. In November, Abramovitz displayed a large model (now lost) of the project at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The gallery director, Gordon Smith, said that he was happy to bring before the public such a fine example of modern architecture. ("Gallery to Display Model of New Temple Beth Zion," Buffalo Courier-Express, November 14, 1964.)   The architect’s model revealed that the walls of the oval sanctuary, which appeared in the earlier perspective drawing as thin, slightly convex vertical slivers of concrete (resembling a series of "lady fingers") were now to be built as larger, fluted or scalloped segments, ten to a side. (Some have nicknamed this the “cupcake” design.) While the exterior was covered with limestone panels, the concrete was left exposed on the interior walls. At the time, workers already had poured one-third of the concrete walls of the sanctuary.         

The design of the Sisterhood Chapel had also undergone revision from the image shown in the architect’s first perspective drawing. In fact, even the model misled the public about its appearance. In its final plan, a convex western wall (with a central floor-to-ceiling window lighting the end containing the bimah and ark), curved outer wing walls, and an ovoid roofline better relate the chapel to the elliptical shapes of the sanctuary than did the shoebox form displayed in the model. In reality, by November 1965, Abramovitz had already modified the building to this final drum-shaped ground plan. (In 1965, a local newspaper reported that Abramovitz had designed the chapel in "a round form" in order to provide "a feeling of unity" by relating it "to the sweeping arc shapes of the sanctuary."The "drum-shaped" chapel, the anonymous but apparently well- informed reporter said, was to be sixty feet in diameter and would serve "as an intermediary between the piquant appeal of the ellipsoidal sanctuary and the routine rectangularity of the . . . two-story religious school building." No record of this design has survived. See "Exciting Architect Accent Temple Here," South Buffalo-West Seneca News, November 18, 1965.)                  

A contemporary newspaper report indicated that excavations had begun for the chapel foundations and that it would be a "rectangular building with circular ends." (Ibid.)  Construction photographs from May 1965 confirm this statement.     

The layout of the Temple Beth Zion complex adheres to an established pattern in postwar synagogue design. It consisted of grouping the predominate temple with a smaller chapel and school and offices adjacent to an open court-like space. Eric Mendelsohn’s Park Synagogue in Cleveland of 1922 is generally credited with pioneering the synagogue plan that Abramovitz followed, utilizing a courtyard as a unifying landscape element. The particular arrangement of the Buffalo building, however, may well have had a secular precedent. The U-shaped arrangement of the synagogue, school, and chapel around a central space facing a major thoroughfare recalls the plan of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Broadway in New York. As the designer of Philharmonic Hall there and a member of the general design team for Lincoln Center, Abramovitz would have been thoroughly familiar with that great undertaking. Such a layout was also expressive of the more open nature of Judaism that Rabbi Fink and his Reform Temple Beth Zion congregation would have wished to present to the world. As a tribute to the sanctuary’s ecumenical expression, dedication ceremonies included participants from a number of Protestant and Catholic communities. These groups had also aided the congregation after fire had destroyed its earlier home.         

In order to erect the sanctuary, the architect employed reinforced concrete poured into scalloped-shaped wooden forms that were raised as each layer set. The Architectural Record described for its professional readers the method of construction employed in the following terms:     
Constructed in two sections (right and left) by horizontal layers, the walls, in their apparent tilted state, remained standing without supports until the roof was applied. Because of the contour, the center of gravity lies not outside nor in the wall, but within the arc. The scalloped shape was developed because it is essentially stronger than a comparable smooth arc.     

A simple steel-truss roof rests on the walls, leaving enough space around the edge for the peripheral skylight. Heating elements were installed on the outer surface of the roof to melt abundant Buffalo snows. 

The concrete was left exposed on the interior (on the exterior they are faced with Alabama limestone) where the unfilled form-bolt holes that held the wooden forms in place during construction were left exposed. These small but deep holes form a pattern that relieves the bareness of the concrete surfaces. 

Heating in the winter comes from warm-air blowers located along the base of the walls that send air up
between the wall and balcony.  ("Temple’s Slanting Walls Create an Upwardly Directed Symbolic Form," Architectural Record, 143, March 1968, 135.)
The first part of the building to be put into service was the auditorium. The building committee had approved plans for this multi-functional structure in August 1964. On the evening of April 21, 1966, Abramovitz came from New York to speak at its dedication to the memory of Rabbi Joseph L. Fink.        

During his talk at the dedication of the Fink auditorium, the architect told his audience that the religious school was about a month away from completion and the Sisterhood Chapel would be ready in May. Abramovitz also mentioned that in June or July Ben Shahn’s great windows would be installed in the sanctuary, which, he predicted, would be in use for High Holy Days in September. ("Auditorium Dedicated to Dr. Fink," Buffalo Courier-Express, April 16, 1966.)   His predictions proved optimistic. The entire complex was eventually dedicated a year after Abramovitz’s speech, on April 21, 1967.


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