The Architectural Art of BHC
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In a letter to an architecture magazine writer, BHC Rabbi Morris Lieberman said, “Our temple center, which was originally a private residence, is colonial in style. Our thought was to erect a colonial type Temple so as to maintain a unity of feeling. [Architect Percival] Goodman changed our minds with a simple observation. He pointed out that we had what he called a bad colonial building on the one side, and a bad Tudor apartment house on the other side. ‘If you want to match the prevailing architecture,’ he told us, ‘let me build a Temple that will be half bad Colonial and half bad Tudor. We could find no answer to this argument, followed his advice, and are very happy about it.”
May 14, 1950 marked the groundbreaking for Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s new building on Park Heights Ave. In November, The Great Thanksgiving Storm—a storm that consistently makes meteorologists’ top 10 lists of all-time greatest storms—hit Baltimore and caused extensive damage to the steel framework that had been put up just the day before. According to longtime BHC executive assistant Rose Greenberg, “The wreckage was indeed a sad sight and the shortage of steel dashed hopes of completion on schedule.. [Ultimately] the loss of time was held to a minimum.”
In 1951, as the congregation was preparing to move from its Madison Ave. building to its new home, just six years after the end of WWII and three years after the State of Israel was founded, BHC Rabbi Morris Lieberman said this:
“[This synagogue] is an affirmation of our faith in our people Israel. In our generation, monstrous tyranny assaulted us and wrought upon us enormous injury. Six million of our brethren were cruelly killed. Great centers of Jewish life were destroyed. The tyrant arrogantly announced that the death blow had finally been dealt our historic people. Yet, out of the very pit of destruction-out of concentration camp and crematorium-there came an answering and resolute rejoinder: "Despite everything, Israel lives."
“This Synagogue symbolizes our confidence in the future of our people. It bespeaks our belief in the imperishability of Jewish life. It is erected for Jewish service in the assurance than down through the years there will be Jewish hearts to enkindle Jewish minds to inform, and Jewish souls to uplift with the principles of our religion and history.”
On November 9, 1951, BHC held Shabbat services in its new sanctuary. Journalists and architectural critics from across the nation commented on the building’s design as “a triumphant example of overcoming the strong resistance to change, especially prevalent among churches, the proportions of the façade, the combination of grave dignity and bold imagination in the windows…”
photo from by Kimberley J. Elman and Angela Giral, eds.
Percival Goodman: Architect, Planner, Teacher, Painter
(NY: Columbia University, 2001)
Percival Goodman (1904-1989) has been called the most prolific synagogue architect in Jewish history, the “leading theorist” of modern synagogue design, having designed more than 50 synagogues between 1948 and 1983. Goodman called himself “an agnostic converted by Hitler” and strongly believed that a new architecture was necessary for post-Holocaust Jews. His goal was to design synagogues that interpreted Jewish tradition in modern ways, and he saw the architect as critical to the process of expressing religious identity in the 20th century. He believed that incorporating representational art into the building’s design was a way to distinguish Reform synagogues from the look of more traditional Orthodox synagogues. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was one of Goodman’s earliest synagogue commissions.