Heritage Matter Talks

“Preservation Beyond Brick and Mortar: Managing Changes in Recent Past Modern American Synagogues”

Anat Geva, Ph.D. (Professor Emerita, Texas A&M University) 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021 | 5:30–6:30 p.m.

Lecture Summary

“Preserve my life, for I am holy.” Psalm 86:2 

Numerous scholars (e.g., Jester 2014; Forty 2012; Prudon 2008) provide a detailed discussion on material conservation in preserving the recent past. An example of this approach can be found in mid 20th century modern American synagogues where various congregations proudly maintained the materiality of their houses of worship with an attempt to preserve the buildings’ modernist design. 

However, the attempt to preserve these synagogues confronted the congregations with additional challenges beyond the issues of brick and mortar. These challenges reflected the need to adapt to changes in four interrelated domains: 

  1. A decline in service attendance due to aging members, a smaller affiliation of younger generations with religion, and often the move of members to newer suburbs of the city. These demographic changes called for administrative and religious adaptations, which were also expressed in various architectural solutions; 
  2. Modifications in liturgy and rituals from a hierarchical approach to a more open and liberal service, which brings the clergy closer to the worshipers. This approach called for new arrangements of the sanctuary and demonstrated the capacity of the interior architecture “to encapsulate all the theological and liturgical traditions of a congregation” (Weissbach 2003); 
  3. Changes in building codes to include accessibility and safety measures; and 
  4. The rise of utilities costs that pushed the congregations to add new chapels to accommodate smaller groups of worshipers for daily small services. The large original sanctuaries only serve for high attendance of Shabbat and high holidays services, festivals, and family celebrations like weddings. The new chapels, though, raise a question of how these new and often local architects coped with icons of mid 20th century modern architecture.

The presentation will illustrate how congregations managed these changes and what were the architectural solutions that cater to these problems while preserving the historic integrity of the buildings. Solutions include accessibility design issues, acoustics, additions of new chapels, and adaptive use of parts of the synagogues’ complexes.

This research adds a new layer to the preservation of recent past buildings showing the efforts to manage the changes through the years while preserving the congregations’ symbol of modern and free life in America. Examples include synagogues designed by prominent modern architects such as Eric Mendelsohn, Walter Gropius, Percival Goodman, Minoru Yamasaki, Sydney Eisenshtat, and Pietro Belluschi.

About the Speaker

Anat Geva, Ph.D., is a registered architect and Professor Emerita of Architecture at Texas A&M University, where she taught design, preservation, history of building technology, and sacred architecture. She has published many articles and book chapters in these areas. She is the author of Frank Lloyd Wright Sacred Architecture: Faith, Form and Building Technology (Routledge 2012), the editor of Modernism and American Mid-20th Century Sacred Architecture (Routledge 2019), and co-editor (with Inbal Ben-Asher Gitler) of Israel Architecture as an Experimental Lab for Modern Architecture: 1948-1978 (Intellect Ltd. 2020). Her forthcoming book on modern American Synagogues is under contract with Texas A&M University Press. She has previously been the co-editor of ARRIS and Preservation Education and Research journals and a book editor for APT Bulletin. She has served as a board member for the Association for Preservation Technology (APT), the Architecture, Culture and Spirituality Forum (ACSF), and the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH). She has also served as president of the  Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH), vice chair of the Construction History Society of America (CHSA), and secretary of the National Council for Preservation Education (NCPE).

Further Reading

  • Croft, Catherine, Susan Macdonald, and Gail Ostergren, eds. 2019. Concrete: Case Studies in Conservation Practice. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute.
  • Docomomo International. http://www.docomomo.com
  • Docomomo US. https://docomomo-us.org/
  • Forty, Adrian. Concrete and Culture: A Material History. 2012. London: Reaktion Books.
  • Gandee, Charles K. 1983. “Tradition Rekindled.” Architectural Record (June).
  • ICOMOS, Twentieth Century Heritage International Scientific Committee. “Madrid – New Delhi Document 2017. http://www.icomos-isc20c.org/madrid-document/
  • Jester, Thomas C., ed. Twentieth-Century Building Materials. 2014. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute.
  • Prudon, Theodore, H. M. 2009. “Lee Nelson Award Winner 2008: Preservation of Modern Architecture.” APT Bulletin: The Journal of Preservation Technology 40, no. 2: 45-48.
  • The Association of Preservation Technology International (APTI). “Modern Heritage Technical Committee.” https://apti.org/modern-heritage
  • The Getty Conservation Institute. “Conserving Modern Architecture Movement.” http://www.getty.edu/conservation/our_projects/field_projects/cmai/cmai_related_mats.html
  • S. Department of the Interior. “Standards for The Treatment of Historic Properties (The Ten Points of The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation).” National Park Services. http://www.nps.gov/tps/standards/rehabilitation.htm
  • Weissbach, Lee Shai. 2003. “The Architecture of the Bimah in American Synagogues: Framing the Ritual.” American Jewish History, 91, no. 1 (March).