Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Rodeph Shalom: Islamic Philadelphia

A most impressive Islamic-inspired building in Philadelphia was designed by Frank Furness in 1871 for the Rodelph Shalom congregation. Rodeph Shalom is the oldest Ashkenazy Jewish congregation in North America, established in 1795. The structure, located on Broad and Vernon Streets does not survive anymore. It was replaced in 1928 by an equally impressive Islamic/Byzantine Revival building.

Given today's Middle-East conflict, it seems unbelievable that Jewish communities would chose an Islamic architectural style to depict themselves in their diasporic setting. But things were different in the 19th century. The tradition of associating Islamic architecture with Judaism began in Germany in the 1830s. Some of the earliest such monuments include Friedrich von Gärtner Munich synagogue and Gottfried Semper's Dresden Synagogue, both destroyed during the Kristallnacht of 1938. The first Islamic-styled synagogue in the U.S. was the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, built in 1865. The architectural flexibility of synagogues is a fascinating topic in its own right. Johanna Schein, one of the students in my Lancaster: Architecture of Faith seminar, studied the reasons why that Shaarai Shomayim congregation presented itself in a Renaissance style in 1896, seeking to assimilate in the Georgian character of old German Lancaster.

The photograph here, shows the 1928 synagogue that survives today designed by Philadelphia firm, Simon and Simon. The current building was restored in 1992 (see beautiful interior photos here). I had the great pleasure of attending Nick and Jill's wedding here a few years ago. The building is a must. It stands only a few blocks north of Frank Furness's best known building, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. During my lecture at Pittsburgh last weekend, I was thrilled to visit the Rodef Shalom Congregation on 5th Avenue designed by Henry Hornbostel in 1908. For more information on all the buildings of Pittsburgh's Rodef Shalom, see here.

Additional posts on Islamic Philadelphia:

Gibson House
Horticultural Hall

1 comment:

Hels said...

Goodness.. that top photo is fantastic.

Jewish communities were extremely worried about Christian control of Jewish life so it was important that no synagogue would look even vaguely like a Christian church.

However it didn't matter what non-church style was chosen for synagogues. Architects (often non-Jewish) were asked to look around and see what was suitable. Thus Islamic styles were perfectly acceptable. Ditto wooden Polish hunting lodges for that matter.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States