Frank Lloyd Wright is America’s most celebrated architect, and he created wondrous works throughout the country. However, he only designed one synagogue: Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
Beth Sholom Synagogue sits in a residential area about nine miles north of Center City Philadelphia in the Montgomery County suburb of Elkins Park. The Beth Sholom Congregation that it serves was established in the city in 1919 but moved out to the suburbs in the 1950s to support the Jewish community in that area.
Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen, who led the congregation, had a dream of creating a grand American synagogue and felt that only Frank Lloyd Wright could help him achieve his vision. And, despite Wright having turned down many similar projects in the past, he was impressed by Cohen’s words and vision and decided to design this impressive structure.
Over the course of six years, Wright worked with Cohen to create a building that was both profoundly a Wright design, as well as profoundly in line with Cohen’s vision and filled with Jewish symbolism. Despite budget and building issues, the structure was completed in September 1959, shortly after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Today, the Beth Sholom Synagogue is one of Wright’s finest works and the only intact example of his work in the Philadelphia area.
Visitors wanting to explore this still active synagogue can take the public tours that are offered every Sunday throughout the year. Unlike many of the other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in PA, photos are allowed on the tour and children are welcome (though they might find the tour a little boring).
Tours of Beth Sholom Synagogue are approximately one hour long and take you through a portion of the building including a small museum, the main sanctuary, and a smaller chapel.
After a brief introduction to the building, tours begin with a quick stop in the museum and a viewing of a 20-minute film about the building of the structure. This film is very well done and really provides great insight into Cohen’s vision and Wright’s design.
As you walk through the synagogue, docents do an excellent job pointing out some of the smaller and larger details in the construction that make this building incredibly unique and unquestionably Jewish in design. It’s really amazing how much thought Wright put into creating a unique American synagogue.
One of my favorite details during my visit was the little lights in the foyer that cast light in the shape of the Star of David. I also really enjoyed all of the symbolism in the altar at the front of the large sanctuary.
As someone who isn’t Jewish and has only been in synagogues a handful of times, I found it very interesting to learn about these little touches, and also about the parts of Jewish that they relate to. I can imagine for those that are Jewish, these touches will be even more meaningful.
The most impressive spot within Beth Sholom Synagogue is the main sanctuary.
This space is awe-inspiring thanks to the towering pyramid of glass that stretches 110 feet over the 1,020 seats within the sanctuary. Lit up at night, this pyramid is designed to evoke the image of Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.
Above the seats, there is a large and colorful chandelier that is strikingly beautiful to gaze upon and is filled with symbolism that is quite fascinating to learn about.
Sadly, needed repairs to the deteriorating plexiglass panels mean that portions of the space are often covered with tarps and buckets line the pathways. Still, this space is truly beautiful and an amazing work of art by both Wright and Cohen.
The tour ends in the small chapel where the congregation typically meets for their weekly services. While not as grand as the main sanctuary, this is still a beautiful space that is interesting to see and features a lot of design touches that are reminiscent of many other Wright designs.
After the tour is finished, visitors are allowed to reenter the museum to spend time looking over some of the preserved artifacts and signage, as well as visit the gift shop.
Once back outside the synagogue, make sure to take the time to walk around to the front of the building to see this incredible place from outside.
Views from afar will give you a sense of the grandeur of the building while closer inspection will let you see some of the exterior details including the beautiful entry doors and the spot where Wright “signed” the structure.
Having toured several of Wright’s works in the past, including Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, both in southwestern PA, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Beth Sholom Synagogue near Philadelphia. I found it especially interesting to contrast the homes I had previously visited with Wright’s work on a more public project, as well as learning about the symbolic details that were designed into the structure.
If you are a fan of Wright’s work, architecture, or simply love history, consider Beth Sholom Synagogue a must-visit spot in the Philly suburbs.
Beth Sholom Synagogue
Hours: Sundays: 10a-3p
Cost: Adults: $15, Kids: Free
Address: 8231 Old York Rd