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Demolition activity at Kahn’s Temple Beth El

August 23, 2010

Louis Kahn commenced designing Temple Beth El in 1967. A sketch of a preliminary scheme from around 1968 includes the handwritten text: “View looking up to entrance block and the synagogue reaching up and down from it/the setting in the envelopment of trees.” That entrance block is no longer. In early August the congregation demolished the entry portion of its temple in Chappaqua, NY, as part of an expansion plan that will attach a new 23,000 sq. ft building to the eight-sided sanctuary and replace Kahn’s low, concrete entryway with a taller, largely glass version as a connector.

Temple Beth El was dedicated in May 1972. It is one of a handful of buildings completed in the last decade of Kahn’s life when he was doing some of his most significant and now heralded work: the Library at Philips Exeter Academy (1965–1972), Kimbell Art Museum (1966–1972) and the Yale Center for British Art (1969–1974). The temple was a very modest project executed in concrete and wood—the entry portion predominantly concrete and the main sanctuary and classroom portion predominantly wood. Its polygonal volume, rising to a central lantern, is related to the forms of earlier wooden synagogues of Poland, which were the subject of considerable attention in the 1960s. The entry pavilion was about 2,000 of the building’s 20,000 square foot. Kahn also designed the original furnishings for the sanctuary as well as the overhead lighting.

On August 13, Architectural Record online reported on the demolition at Temple Beth El, leading with “A plan to enlarge the only surviving synagogue by Louis Kahn has sparked opposition among some preservationists…” DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State falls into that camp, but even as “preservationists” we do not take issue with congregation’s plan to enlarge its building to meet programming needs. Programming is essential and Congregation Beth El has almost doubled in size since 1972. Our opposition rests squarely on the project’s siting and design. Rarely is there only one design solution. And certainly an alternate solution exists that could have added the necessary square footage without demolishing the Kahn-designed entry.

The design, by New York architect Alex Gorlin, has been in the works for several years. DOCOMOMO members on our fall 2008 tour of religious buildings in Connecticut and Westchester saw a rendering of the proposed addition on display and voiced concerns about the connecting volume to the congregation’s representative present. As follow-up, DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State board members made several attempts to review the proposed addition design with the architect, but were unable to schedule a meeting to do so.

It’s sad and disheartening to see demolition happen. Thankfully, at Temple Beth El there is still much to value. Focus must shift to encouraging the congregation to respect what it does have as it continues with interior and exterior renovations. We have to agree with the architect’s son Nathaniel Kahn who told Architectural Record, “You can’t say you are respecting the original design while taking away part of it.”

Photos, top to bottom:
Rendering of Temple Beth El expansion plan
View of original entry, 2008
View, 2008
Sketch by Louis Kahn, c. 1968
Construction photo taken at site in 1972

© Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania
photo: John Morris Dixon
photo: K. Randall
©Louis I. Kahn Collection, University of Pennsylvania
source: Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester website