Temple Beth Zion - Table of Contents
Temple Beth Zion: From 599 to 805 Delaware Avenue
Remarks on the Occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Temple Dedication
April 20, 2007
By John Laping
Buffalo Spree: 2011 John Laping Interview (online Sept. 2016)
On the evening of October 4, 1961, as [my wife] Toby and I were preparing dinner in our Irving Place apartment we noticed a flickering light through the autumn trees. It only took us moments to realize we were watching a fire and a few moments more to realize the fire was coming from Temple. We made two phone calls; the first to report the fire…it had already been reported…and the second to my in-laws, Joseph and Janice Fink.
We rushed over to the Temple and were joined by hundreds of others who watched a piece of Buffalo history burn. When the great copper clad dome collapsed into the surrounding walls it sent a huge burst of sparks into the October night sky. It was, like the whirlwind in Job, a clear signal that our history was about to change.
The Temple where my father-in-law preached, taught and used his pulpit to make the Jewish view an important piece of this community’s dialogue was no more. The place where we were married, where my family was named, confirmed and bar-mitzvah was no more. It was a place of memories like the sparks that lit up the sky that October night.
The following day Temple President, Milton Friedman conducted his second Board of Trustees meeting. He acknowledged offers of space from The Jewish Center, Temple Beth El and Westminster Church. Holy Blossom had 500 prayer books in transit to Buffalo. The Schwab Construction Corporation volunteered to raze the Temple site at no cost to us.
Maurice Tabor reported the Temple, its contents and windows were insured for $820,000.
The Diaspora that followed sent offices to The Jackson Building, Sunday School and services to our suburban building, and my father-in-law to a study in Benderson’s IBM building.
That year the Chanuka candlelight service was held at Westminster Presbyterian Church. I shall never forget walking home after services and their amazing display of Buffalo ecumenism when Westminster’s carillon rang out with our Chanuka anthem, “Rock of Ages”.
The Temple was blessed with a number of strong leaders…people of vision… and none were more important to tonight’s story than Nate Benderson and Paul Cohen.
Nate Benderson has, we’ll all agree, a genius for real estate. It’s our great fortune that Nate came forward and suggested to Ed Kavinoky, chair of The Site Selection Committee, and Milton Friedman that the ideal site for Temple was here at 805 Delaware and that its three separate parcels could be assembled. There was the Towne Club, an E.B. Green Georgian mansion that was built by Spencer Kellogg, Sr. There was the Wilhelm property occupied by The Buffalo Bible Institute and there was the corner parcel that the US government owned.
Benderson argued forcefully that this site offered great visibility on Delaware Avenue, it had access from three streets and, at four acres, it was large enough to accommodate the Temple building. The cost was $650,000. Nate ultimately did what he does best. He assembled the three parcels.
The December 29, 1961 Board Meeting minutes indicate that several other sites were considered along with the “Benderson” site. There was a three acre site at Delaware and Nottingham that would require the acquisition of seven parcels; it was estimated to cost $447,000. This site was an appeasement to those who wanted a suburban location.
There was the Four Winds Nursery site on Main Street between Fairlawn and Getzville.
And there was some consideration of re-building on the old Temple site.
At that same meeting Paul Cohen was appointed chair of The Architect Selection Committee.
On January 14, 1962 the Temple Board concurred with Nate’s vision and set February 7 for a congregational vote on the purchase. But the Board did hedge that bet and extended its option on the Four Winds site.
The congregation overwhelmingly agreed with Nate’s vision and voted to acquire the “Benderson” site. At that meeting preliminary project estimates indicated a total project of $2,840,000 and after using the insurance settlement and proceeds from the sale of 599 Delaware, a need to raise $1,680,000.
Choosing an Architect
The March 25 Board meeting minutes indicate Don Day was appointed chair of The Program Committee and that the Architect Selection Committee was charged with, “interviewing the best possible men for the job.”
On April 15, 1962 the Architect Selection Committee made its report to the Board. That report is amazing in its length, its thoroughness and its insights into why some of the architects were rejected. Some 20 firms were considered and not all of these were interviewed by the full committee; that speaks well for the trust the members placed in one another.
Jim Oppenheimer recalled that Paul Cohen was a forceful chair and wanted an architect with a national reputation to design the new temple. Jim and a few others thought there was enough local talent to do a competent job.
Ultimately some of the architect candidates were Temple members, some were recommended by Temple members and some came by recommendation of The Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was rumored that one came because an influential committee member’s wife had once dated one of those candidates.
Of those interviewed three were from Buffalo, two from Rochester, five had very extensive Temple experience and the rest had national and international reputations.
- Gordon Bunshaft of SOM was a Buffalo native and a favorite of Seymour Knox. He was interviewed by Paul Cohen while in Buffalo for the dedication of the Albright Knox in January of 1962. Bunshaft was an irascible sort and was generally always accompanied by a second SOM partner; on this occasion he was alone. He expressed a desire to design the Temple but acknowledged that SOM had no experience with religious buildings. He talked about the design of the Beinecki Rare Book Library at Yale as the closest thing to a Temple he’d done. It is a ‘60’s icon with its onyx curtain wall. But Bunshaft failed to send the Beinecki photos he promised and was rejected because of his lack of follow through. Cohen also wrote disparagingly of SOM’s buildings characterized by “rectangular areas and right angle structures.” SOM, with two American Institute of Architects gold medalists and twice voted by the AIA as the Firm of the Year, was rejected.
- Minoru Yamasaki who was to design the M & T Bank building here and the twin towers of The World Trade Center was considered but later said he was too busy to take on the project.
- Marcel Breuer, an AIA gold medal honoree and the architect for the UB Engineering School wanted $800 for expenses and a per diem if he was to come to Buffalo and be considered. Such chutzpah!
- Edward Durrell Stone was interviewed. He designed the US Pavilion at the 1963 New York Worlds Fair, the US Embassy in New Delhi and the original Museum of Modern Art. Stone, like Yamasaki, was “hot” but admitted that he could not give the Temple his personal attention.
- The Cohen report makes no mention of discussions with Pietro Belluschi, a 1972 AIA gold medalist or the outcome of discussions with William Lescaze, perhaps better known for his industrial design.
- Other AIA gold medalists… Walter Gropius, Meis van der Rohe, Louis Kahn or Philip Johnson… were not considered either.
On March 31 the committee interviewed Max Abramovitz of Harrison & Abramovitz. The Cohen report says little about what Abramovitz showed them other than the firms work at the United Nations, Rockefeller Center and Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. These are some interesting selections:
- The UN was designed by Le Corbusier; H & A looked after the execution of the Secretariat Building and the overall construction.
- Rockefeller Center was designed by Raymond Hood with Wallace Harrison looking after the construction details.
- Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center by Abramovitz was later redesigned twice more before the acoustics were made right.But, Harrison & Abramovitz had designed two ecclesiastical projects.
- Harrison designed The First Presbyterian Church in Stamford, Connecticut; it is a fish shaped building with concrete tracery and an infill of colored glass chunks. The architectural press fondly referred to it as “Holy Mackerel.”
What Abramovitz said that impressed the Committee was that the Temple would have his full and personal attention and indeed it did.
- Abramovitz had designed the three Brandeis chapels themed as three books. The Berlin (Jewish ) chapel is in the form of an open torah. The Catholic Chapel is an open book with its spine vertical. The Harlan (Protestant) Chapel rests on its edges with its spine horizontal to encompass the late Justice’s ideas of inclusion.
Abramovitz was born in Chicago in 1908 and attended the University of Illinois where in 1929 he received a BS degree, most likely in architectural engineering. He went on to earn a Masters degree at Columbia in 1931 and also work for Wallace Harrison. In 1932 Abramovitz won a fellowship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. This was a great time to be in school because during the depression there was very little work for architects.
When he returned from Paris he rejoined Harrison working on various competitions and projects from long time patrons. One of those patrons was Nelson Rockefeller whose father would give the land on which the UN was built and who would steer Lincoln Center work to the firm and ultimately The Albany Mall. Nelson did award H & A the Rockefeller Apartments behind the Museum of Modern Art, the building where he died.
The firm finally got busy with the award of the theme building for the 1939 New York Worlds Fair…a complex consisting of a 610’ spike called the Trylon, a 180’ diameter globe named the Perisphere and a 950’ long ramp called the Helicline. It was all very popular. He was named a partner in 1941.
Between 1939 and 1942 both Harrison and Abramovitz served as visiting professors at Yale and are credited with introducing “New Modernism” to a school that was traditionally immersed in Beaux Arts architecture.
Abramovitz served in the army during WW II and was discharged with the rank of colonel. At H & A his career blossomed with several large, prestigious and often innovative projects. Theirs was a large and important post war firm.
On April 15, 1962 Paul Cohen presented the Committee report recommending retaining Harrison & Abramovitz. The Board concurred.
I would be remiss here if I did not impress you with the personal importance architects place on the design of temples or churches. These are very special buildings with great, unique spaces meant to inspire one and all who enter. The budgets are better, there is an opportunity to integrate art and music into the space but most important, there is an opportunity to say, “I did this, I created this very special place and it’s my legacy.”
On December 9, eight months after being retained Abramovitz presented his scheme to the Board. It was substantially what was built. The Board had questions on the details but no one questioned the concept. The Board moved to proceed with the design.
On March 17, 1963 the News published the architect's rendering of the new building. This was not without controversy to put it mildly. In fact there was such a stir that the Board seriously considered asking Abramovitz to redesign the building. Fortunately wiser heads prevailed and the design work went forward although there were no cost estimates yet.
To subdue future controversies the Board asked Miriam Tabor to develop a cartoon that could be used in future publications from Temple. There was a feeling the cartoon was a great deal safer than another rendering! We still use her drawing today.
Over the next several months the Board minutes are peppered with cost concerns as the estimates exceed $3,100,000. There was a great deal of discussion about phasing the work and downsizing the facility components but there is nothing recorded that downsizes anything.
There was a bit of a controversy on the organ placement. The Music Committee wanted it in the front; Abramovitz’ position was that “music is incidental to the religious service.” We know who won that argument.
The April 12 Board minutes reflect a project that’s affordable at $3,250,000 including a $500,000 mortgage.
There were three bidders on the temple project, John W. Cowper, Turner Construction and Seigfried. Buffalo hadn't had much concrete construction since building the grain elevators and certainly nothing like the Temple with its flaring walls was ever built here. Nevertheless the bidders were confident they could construct the Temple. The Board authorized a construction contract for just over $2,800,000 on May 23, 1964
Seigfried’s Ron Shreiber, the project engineer described the design of the formwork, the “molds” into which the reinforcing steel and the wet concrete are placed, as far more complicated than the design of the actual structure. Imagine the geometry of ten scalloped plywood forms that are wider at the bottom and narrower at the top and then topped by ten more forms also wider at the bottom and narrower at the top. And then it’s repeated once more for the final pour. If you look at the walls you can see that there were three continuous pours, one for each tier. One side wall was built and then the other. Mason Holmwood, Seigfried's project manager added that the 22 points of intersection for both the inside and outside of the forms would meet 482’ below ground. Mason added that you needed to form and pour all ten scallops at the same time; you could not pour 5 and than another 5 as the first 5 would collapse.
In August of ’64 the Board authorized the purchase of the Casavant Freres organ for $60,000. It was to be installed at the rear of the sanctuary.
In January of 1965 the Board considered the purchase of Ben Shahn’s great east window. Shahn at age 7, with his mother and brothers and sisters immigrated to America from Lithuania. His father, a socialist had been exiled to Siberia. Shahn’s art was very much shaped by his life. His first taste of critical acclaim came with a series on the trial and executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. Later as the depression worsened he was employed by the WPA doing public murals aligned with labor and social reform. Affected by the horrors of WW II Shahn tempered his style toward a more subjective style of biblical and mythological themes. In his later years there was a resurgence of his Jewish feeling and heritage.
Abramovitz was pushing for a decision on the window as it was a key element of his design scheme. The cost was estimated to be $100,000. The window theme was taken from Job, chapter 38, verses 4 thru 7, God speaking to Job from out of a whirlwind. The Board approved the motion to move ahead by a vote of 13 to 4.
The construction moved along but not without its share of problems. It took Seigfried a year to get a contract signed. The budget kept rising and project completion was delayed; in one report to the Board the Building Committee chair notes that the School, Auditorium and Chapel would be completed by mid April, 1966; regarding the Sanctuary schedule his handwritten note says, “don’t ask!”
The last reported cost estimate for the completed project was $3,600,000. And by June of ’66 it’s reported the Sanctuary will be ready by the Spring of 1967. The Board set dates for the dedication; one of those dates was 40 years ago tonight.
True to his promise Max Abramovitz stayed personally involved with the Temple project. Mason Holmwood of Seigfried spoke of the many evenings he and Max shared where Max would redraw sketches for the next day’s work.
Kitty Friedman Goldman told me that she would join her parents for dinners with Abramowitz and later with Ben Shahn. She remembered Max Abramovitz as a short thin man; my recollections were that he was a very tall thin man…but that’s the way any young architect would recall one of the giants of his profession.
We, Temple members and indeed all the residents of Western New York owe a debt of gratitude to those men and women who had the vision and the guts to build this very remarkable place. They wanted to sustain the legacy of Beth Zion as a vital force in the life of Buffalo and they saw an opportunity to leave something better than they found. Perhaps their inspiration came from that whirlwind of sparks that lit up the autumn sky 46 years ago.
Max Abramovitz died on September 12, 2004 at the age of 96.
If you have ever had the opportunity to visit Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in London you know that there is embedded in the floor directly below the great dome a bronze grille. The message inscribed on that grille says, “Reader, if you seek his monument look around you.”
That is an appropriate epitaph for Mr. Abramovitz.