Tuesday, March 13, 2018

USA: Cincinnati's Plum Street Temple in its Urban Context

Cincinnati, Ohio. Intersection at Eighth and Plum Street, view from the east and above showing (left to right) Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains (1844), Plum Street Temple (1866), city Hall (1888 ff.), Unitarian Church (1860s).
USA: Cincinnati's Plum Street Temple in its Urban Context 
 by Samuel D. Gruber

One of the most recognized and written about American synagogues is Cincinnati's Isaac M. Wise Temple (K. K. B'nai Yeshurun, commonly known as the Plum Street Temple) planned and built for Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise and his congregation during the Civil War, and opened in 1866 (the interior was not painted until the 1870s).

Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, was especially proud of the building which was designed by prominent Cincinnati architect James Keys Wilson and inspired by the Moorish architecture of the Iberian Alhambra. Wise was quite explicit in his admiration of the Alhambra - but he also certainly was influenced by contemporary synagogue architecture in Central Europe of which he would have heard and seen illustrations.

The K. K. B'nai Yeshurun Temple, despite its prominent location at 720 Plum Street in downtown in Cincinnati, is too often regarded as a unique object, as it is represented in the oft-reproduced painting by Henry Mosler, on view at the Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati (see my photo below).

Henry Mosler (1842-1920). Plum Street Temple. Oil on canvas, 1866.  Skirball Museum, HUC, Cincinnati. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Sheet music cover for Progress March by P. Martens, with a lithograph by Ehrgott, Forbriger & Co. of the exterior of the Plum Street Temple. Published Cincinnati : J.J. Dobmeyer. Source: Low Country Digital Archive.
In Mosler's and subsequent derivative images, the Temple is shown as a disembodied object. Consequently it is often studied in isolation rather than as part of a dense mid-19th century urban fabric, and as part of a growing ensemble of related religious and civic buildings. Alternatively, the Temple is written about as the first of many American Moorish-style synagogues - and thus seen retrospectively rather than in the contention of its place and time.

This post then is not so much about the architecture and decoration of the Plum Street Temple as a brief attempt to re-insert the building into its historic context, since the role of building in its setting can also be seen as physical manifestation of the way Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise perceived the future of Judaism in America.

The building, like Reform Judaism itself, is undoubtedly distinct and recognizable as something special, and perhaps even exotic. Still, like Reform Judaism, the Temple is built in dialog with older religious structures and is clearly intended to be part of the civic American environment. There is distinction but not separation in the architecture and siting of the Plum Street Temple.

Cincinnati, Ohio. historic postcard showing the Moorish style Plum Street Temple on the right and the nearly contemporary Classical domed Unitarian church on the left, both on Plum Street at 8th Street. In the rear, behind several lower scale building one can see the First Presbyterian church, built in 1875 (as the Second Presbyterian Church) at 8th and Elm Streets facing Piatt Park.
The same intersection today. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Isaac Wise certainly viewed it in the context of the dense grouping of (often conflicting) religious and civic buildings surrounding the intersection.  In October 1869 he wrote about this in a column in the Israelite (Oct 15, 1869) the national Jewish newspaper which he edited. 

“Religious Liberty, Corner of Eighth and Plum Streets, in Cincinnati” is typical of Wise's florid, ironic, unapologetic and polemical style. It is a valuable window into seeing the Plum Street Temple and 19th-century ascendant Reform Judaism in a broader American context where we see American Judaism both cooperative but also combatant. In the essay Wise enumerates the diversity of religious buildings and their juxtaposition with City Hall. In Wise's architectural oratory, the churches talk to each other - though not often in agreement - but this is his point, that this mix of religions and sects (and we might add, architectural styles), is the full expression of American religious liberty.
"If the reader’s imagination is sufficiently vivacious, expansive and soaring to have a correct vision of said corner of Eighth and Plum Streets, he can form a correct and concrete idea of civil and religious liberty, for there is to be seen a picture to which the world at large can offer no parallel, no precedent, no comparison."
Cincinnati, Ohio. Historic postcard showing Classical domed Unitarian church on the right at Plum Street at 8th Street.  Two buildings down on the left at 810 Plum Street is the First Presbyterian church, built in the 1860s, shown with its original tower.
The same stretch of Plum Street today. The former Presbyterian church is now commercial space, but the building is in the Ninth Street Historic District. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
The same stretch of Plum Street today with a view all the way to Seventh Street.  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
The Plum Street Temple (as some form of new synagogue) was planned from 1855, but not built until the end of the Civil War and dedicated on Friday, August 24, 1866. the Jewish Temple  directly faces the older Saint Peter In Chains Cathedral, designed by Henry Walter, a masterful work of church architecture that mixes Greek Revival and the style of Christopher Wren. Located a half block away across 7th Street was St. Paul Episcopal Cathedral, built in 1855 and subsequently torn down in 1937.

Wise begins his list of houses of worship with recognition of the Catholic Cathedral St. Peter in Chains,  He aptly notes the 1845 building's "magnificent porch and tower" (the tower was not finished until 1855).  While Wise lauds the building, he doesn't have much good to say of the Archbishop or Roman Catholic practice or doctrine (after all, this was written while the Edgardo Mortara kidnapping case was still fresh in memory).

"Cross over to the southwestern corner of Eighth and Plum; there stands the archbishop’s cathedral with its magnificent porch and tower, protesting aloud, by the papal encyclical letters of syllabus and fifteen centuries of history, against the civil and religious liberty of the opposite side. “I alone can save you from the claws and paws of the devil and the terrible caldron of hell,” that cathedral maintains: ‘unless you go to heaven in my particular fashion, you can not go there at all. Unless you give the superintendency over state, school and society into the hands of the priest, and unless you believe and obey him, you are wicked and ungodly libertines and infidels, whom the Lord will punish in due time. Unless you do as I teach, you do that which is an abomination in the sight of the Lord, and destructive of the timely and eternal happiness of man.” There they stand slightly opposite one another, the cathedral and the city hall, kept apart by the atmosphere of liberty, steadily reminded by the stars and stripes waving from the roof of the latter, to keep the peace and to respect the personal rights of free-born man."

Cincinnati, Ohio. Intersection of Eighth and Plum streets. We see the flank of the Plum Street temple and across the street the might tower of Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral, dedicated in 1845. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral, dedicated in 1845. Henry Walter, architect. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
After describing The Plum Street Temple, Wise turns his eyes across Eighth Street to the new classical style domed Unitarian Church, another fine but demolished building. Built in 1864 by the Unitarians, it was apparently also known as the First Congregational Church. In 1887 the Unitarians moved to a new church at Reading Road. This structure was remodeled in 1888 for use by lawyers (it was directly across from City Hall) and became known as the Temple Court Building. The elegant building appears to have had its light-filled sanctuary on the second floor, much in the way many European synagogues were built. In fact, the main body of this building closely resembles many earlier American synagogues - such as the 1790s building of Beth Elohim in Charleston, and later synagogues, including classical style buildings in Cincinnati such as the former Adath Israel (now Southern Baptist Church).

Significantly, however, when Rabbi Wise chose to build a notable new building for K. K. B'nai Yeshurun he chose the novel Moorish style rather the tried and true classicism of the Unitarians.

Cincinnati, Ohio. Corner of Eighth and Plum Streets. Former Unitarian Church, later known as the Temple Court Building (demolished), built 1864. Historic photo.
Wise wrote:
"Cross over more to the northeastern corner of Eighth and Plum and behold this neat structure surmounted with a mighty dome, to admit the sun’s pure rays of light, and to exclude the noise and confusion form the busy thoroughfare. It is the new and radical Unitarian Church, in which the Rev. Thomas Vickers will preach. This church stands nearer to the temple than to the cathedral; and in doctrine too, it approaches Judaism much closer than Roman Catholicism. This new church will call across the way to the temple, “I want none of your observances,” and to the cathedral, “I want none of your doctrines. I have carved out my own path of salvation, which you Christians call Deism and infidelity, and you Jews call a fashionable religion.” But there it stands on yonder corner, notwithstanding the arm of worldly power, inquisition, persecution, sword and pyre employed for centuries, to protect the church against such opposition. There it stands and exclaims with Teil: “Durch diese hohle Gasse muse er kommen” “He must pass through this hollow"
"Liberty’s mighty arm protects it. The consciousness of humanity salutes it as the sign of morning, dawning upon the horizon of the human family."
Just two doors down from the Unitarian church was the First Reformed Presbyterian Church
(visible in postcard views above), built according to one church list in 1867, and so almost exactly contemporary with the Plum Street Temple. [1] Though the tall tower of this Romanesque-Gothic hybrid is gone and the ground floor entrance of the church facade has been changed, the structure survives and has been renovated for commercial use. The congregation was one of many that merged over the years - probably into what is now the Covenant - First Presbyterian Church just a block away, at 7th and Elm Street (see below).

Of the Plum Street Presbyterian church, Wise wrote:
... Next to his new [Unitarian] church another neat stone building tells you the Scotch Presbyterians worship here the God of mankind in a manner most agreeable to them. They sing the Psalms of David; and would not omit even the fire which issues form the nostrils of the lord, to burn all sinners even to the center of the earth. They call themselves Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Sarah, Rachel, and as all the other Hebrew worthies were called; and read the Old Testament without omission of Shadrach, Mesbach and Abed Nego, although many a poor deacon nearly choked on the jaw breaking names. It is a piece of Palestine in the United States, without the harp of Judah. But there the neat structure stands and tells the four corners beside it, “I am as I please to be. I believe and worship as my conscience dictates. I can never believe nor worship with any of you. I have my own way.”
Towards Seventh Street, the lot adjacent to the Plum Street Temple was developed as a seven (?) story commercial building, probably around 1900. This space is now filled by a unsightly modern parking lot that nearly abuts the Temple and face the Catholic Cathedral.

Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street and Temple and view of block from Eighth to Seventh Street. Historic photo.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street and Temple and view of block from Eighth to Seventh Street as it is today..Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Plum Street Temple and adjacent parking garage. Henry Mosler would weep!  Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Just beyond this tall stolid, but still attractive facade and across Seventh street was the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint Paul, built in a robust Romanesque style in 1852.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Saint Paul Episcopal Cathedral, Seventh and Plum streets. Built 1852, demolished 1937. Historic postcard.
There was still another church. By 1875 a large new Second Presbyterian Church was built behind the Plum Street temple, too. This still stands, now the Covenant - First Presbyterian Church facing Pliatt Park. For more than 75 years the church and the Temple almost bumped rear ends on Eighth Street - blocked only by a series of low-rise buildings. Now, sadly another big parking garage separates the two religious buildings.

Cincinnati, Ohio. Covenant - First Presbyterian Church at Eighth and Elm Streets. Formerly Second Presbyterian Church, built 1875. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio.  Former Second Presbyterian Church and Plum Street Temple separated by low-rise buildings on Eighth Street. Detail from historic postcard.
Cincinnati, Ohio.  Former Second Presbyterian Church and Plum Street Temple separated by parking garage on Eighth Street. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017.

Lastly, at the intersection of Eighth and Plum Streets we see the massive Cincinnati City Hall asserting itself over all the present-day buildings. This grand Richardsonian Romanesque building was not erected until the late 1880s, but it replaced a previous the City Hall which Isaac Mayer Wise knew and the activities of which he began his essay and spoke in very vivid terms:
If the reader’s imagination is sufficiently vivacious, expansive and soaring to have a correct vision of said corner of Eighth and Plum Streets, he can form a correct and concrete idea of civil and religious liberty, for there is to be seen a picture to which the world at large can offer no parallel, no precedent, no comparison. On the north-western corner of Eight and Plum, in a neat little park with a foundation of water not quite crystal, there rises in Cincinnati gray, the City Building, in which the Judge of the Police court daily throws his terrible thunderbolts on the hands of the wicked; where sometimes you may find his honor the Mayor of Cincinnati or somebody to represent him; where the Board of Education fights the battles of the lord for or against the Archbishop of Cincinnati; where the Board of health feels quite well and healthy, notwithstanding the dead fish and the miserable meats sold in market; where above all our venerable city fathers meet in grand council, deal in Deer creek lots, give us a Garden of Eden, and make sometimes other sundry laws for other sundry purposes….
Cincinnati, Ohio. City Hall, 1888 ff. This building replaced an earleir City hall on the same location. Photo: Samuel Gruber 2017
Concluding, Wise looks at all these fine buildings and sees the meaning of America - even if it may be a century or more before it is fully realized and these churches really do converse with each other - instead of shouting. The architecture takes us back to a very fervent and fertile time in American life, when our identity was still being shaped, even as it is again today.
So it looks in Cincinnati, corner Eighth and Plum streets. It is the most striking monument of civil and religious liberty in this or any other country. It is the most telling demonstration of the spirit of our age and the freedom of our country. Job calls God, him “Who maketh peace in his heavens high.” Here god is revealed on earth in the same capacity. The head of the cathedral goes to the Ecumenical council in Rome. The head of the Presbyterian Church says, that man goes to worship the man of sin, the prince of darkness. The head of the Unitarian Church says, both of you worship Baal, each in his own bewildering dogmatism. The head of the temple thinks it will take them a century before they will be able to comprehend their errors, and one century longer to confess it. But over yonder the stars and strips command peace; peace in the name of the law, peace in the name of liberty, and all must submit. This is a wonderful corner. We wish to see one of the same kind in Rome, another in St. Petersburg, and again another in Constantinople. We do not mean to say, by any means, that we wish our city fathers and city officials to be in those distant cities, although we have no right to check their progress, if they should insist upon going there; we mean to say civil and religious liberty to all and every where.

[1] “Churches of Cincinnati”

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Cincinnati's (former) Wise Center Windows: A Mid-Century Modern Surprise in a Majestic 1920s Building

Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. Detail of the Israel Windows. Herman Verbinnen, artist. 1968.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
Cincinnati's (former) Wise Center Windows: A Mid-Century Modern Surprise in a Majestic 1920s Building
by Samuel D. Gruber

[Thanks to Andrea Rapp, Temple Librarian of the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, for help in researching this post. I  thank the congregants of Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church for welcoming my unannounced visit and allowing me access to the sanctuary.]

I recently wrote about Cincinnati's former Isaac M. Wise Center on Reading Road, built by Congregation K.K. B'nai Yeshurun in the 1920s to supplement use of the historic Plum Street Temple downtown was one of the first known instances (to me) of the creation of the "satellite synagogue/school" that could serve the needs of a congregation which had moved to a new neighborhood but was for various reasons not ready or willing to give up its much-loved older home. An addition to the 1920s center was built in the 1950s.

In 1968, a new program of stained glass windows were added, and these are an important example of mid-century modern synagogue stained glass. Though not of the order of Abraham Rattner's great windows at the Chicago Loop Synagogue, Ben Shahn's designs for Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, or Adolph Gottlieb's windows for the Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn or the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, they should be considered along with the work of Jean-Jacques Duval as beautiful work by Christian stained glass artists for Jewish clients, who strove to adapt their more frequently commissioned work for churches to synagogue use.

In the late 1960s, rather than create a still newer center,  the decision was made to upgrade the existing auditorium with a new complementary mid-century modern look. The new Ark and windows, dedicated in 1968, were given in memory of Edward M. Marks by his wife, Mrs. Emma Marks and daughters Miss Janet Marks and Mrs. May Fechheimer. Possibly it was thought that by updating the Center's look in a more contemproary modern style that membership could be retained despite the changing demographics of the neighborhood. Jews left Avondale and moved further north, and the Wise Center was sold in 1971.

The Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church that purchased the building and maintains it well, and the congregation chose to retain much of the synagogue decoration, including the then very recent stained glass windows.

Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.
John Burdick (1921-1997) and Otto Bauer-Nilsen were engaged as architects for the renovation. A new Ark was designed by Frank Francois, and new stained glass windows were commissioned from Herman Verbinnen (1932-1987). Rabbi Albert Goldman created the concept, and probably oversaw the selection of the unusual symbolism included in the window design. Rabbi Goldman had been promoted to Senior Rabbi of the congregation in 1966.

The Ark and twelve stained glass windows were not all that was new at the Isaac M. Wise Temple. In 1971 rabbinical student Sally Priesand served as a rabbinic intern to the congregation. A year later  she would become the first American woman ordained as a rabbi, opening a new era for American Judaism, and pioneering a new role for American Jewish women.

Stained glass artist Verbinnen, who was born in Belgium, was responsible for several important for the creation of several programs of stained windows for religious sites, especially in Southern Ohio where he worked for many years before his early death at age 55. In Cincinnati one can still see the monumental windows he created at St. Paul Lutheran Church on Madison Road and the windows of the Forest Chapel United Methodist Church at 680 W. Sharon Road. In 2016 his windows for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at the University of Dayton were removed.

For rabbi Goldman and the Isaac M. Wise Center, Verbinnen created 12 tall windows (6 pairs) in muted tones to fill the existing arched spaces. The windows consist of abstract designs of irregularly shaped but basically rectangular and trapezoidal colored panes, over which are laid painted symbols with Hebrew words and inscriptions. Some inscriptions appear backwards. It is not clear if this was intentional to allow some to be read from the outside and some from within, or whether some windows were installed backwards either originally or during later repairs.

I have not yet seen pictures of the original windows. Rabbi Goldman's concept for the windows was that they reflect many facets of the Congregation. 

The following descriptions are taken from a brochure published in 1971 at the time of the dedication.  It is a good thing the congregation published this, as it is doubtful most congregants would have figured out the meanings on their own. 

The photos are my own, taken on a quick visit in early November 2017. They correspond to the published descriptions.

Two windows form each of six panels, which trace the history of the Isaac M. Wise Temple, its roots, and its aspirations.


The first represents American freedom. Fifty stars, the states, form an arc over the capitol building. The flame of the eternal light, marking the grave of John F. Kennedy, combines with these to symbolize the ideal and reality of freedom in America.

"And they shall seek the peace of the city (Jeremiah.)

The second panel shows the Liberty Bell, America’s chosen symbol of freedom from foreign rule, placed over a plate of matzah, the traditional Jewish symbol of exodus and freedom.

‘‘And they shall proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10)

Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. The Freedom Windows. Herman Verbinnen, artist. 1968.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

The first panel shows the street of spires: an artist s concept of Plum St. as it stands, in the heart of Cincinnati. The spires of a Protestant Church, Catholic Church, the mosque-like spires of the Isaac M. Wise Temple, and the spires of City Hall mingle; showing the richness of variety which adds to the strength of Cincinnati.

"And they shall walk, each man, in the name of his God: (Micah )

The second window is a faithful picture of the Isaac M. Wise Temple on Plum Street built by this Congregation in 1865. This building saw the nourishment and growth of Reform Judaism, nurtured by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, and guided into the present. 

‘‘And we shall walk in the way of our Lord (Micah.)

Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. The Cincinnati Windows. Herman Verbinnen, artist. 1968.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

These windows hold symbols of the major Jewish holidays. The first holds a Chanukah menorah, reminder of a war of liberation and a miracle wrought while giving thanks and praise to God. It contains a shofar, the ram s horn, which called the tribes of Israel together, and which has sounded on Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur throughout the ages.

The second panel shows the Sabbath candles and the wine cup, which mark the seventh day of the week as a day of rest and worship, holy unto the Lord. The lulav, symbol of God’s omnipresence, and the etrog, symbol of bitter times, represent the Festival of Booths

"These are the festivals of the Lord." (Pentateuch)
Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. The Festival Windows. Herman Verbinnen, artist. 1968.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

The first Peace Window shows an open book on top of a broken sword, symbolizing the triumph of knowledge as a way of life over that of war.

The complementary panel shows the Torah, lifted aloft, depicting the joy and triumph of learning and know­ledge of the kingdom of God.

"Its way are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace " (Psalms)

Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. The Peace Windows. Herman Verbinnen, artist. 1968.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

The mountain of the Lord, with a backdrop of flames, and the downcast people, surrounded by chains, depict the devastation of persecution. The chains and fire sym­bolize historic bondage, as well as the Nazi holocaust.

"For the sake of Thy Name."

The mountain, again, forms the background of the second panel. This shows people leaving through open gates, ascending the mountain with heads uplifted. The Mountain of the Lord, and the gates symbolize release and the pursuit of righteousness. These windows are dedicated to the memory of the six million who perished under the Nazis, and to the martyrs of the generations.

Open unto me the gates of righteousness. " (Psalms)
Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. The Martyr Windows. Herman Verbinnen, artist. 1968.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.

The creation of the State of Israel is celebrated in these panels. The first displays the official seal of Israel: the candelabra and the olive branch of peace.


The second shows the sun shining on the land of Israel. The shape of the state of Israel outlines the wheat sheaves, showing fruitfulness of a previously barren land. Ships and planes, headed toward the land, show the in­gathering of immigrants from all parts of the world,

And I shall build you and I shall plant you. "(Jeremiah)

Cincinnati, Ohio. Former Isaac M. Wise Center, now Zion Temple First Pentecostal Church. The Israel Windows. Herman Verbinnen, artist. 1968.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2017.