Dropped as if from heaven in the quiet Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park, the imposing Beth Sholom Congregation represents a creative peak for architect Frank Lloyd Wright and a paradigm shift for Jews in America. The building appears without warning, and unlike the low, rectangular hedges and office buildings that predominate nearby, reaches both upward and outward with such authority that you fear the air pressure could suddenly shift.
It’s the only synagogue Wright ever designed. He wanted the building to evoke a “luminous Mount Sinai,” and indeed, it does. A pyramid constructed of corrugated wire glass on the outside and translucent fiberglass walls inside crown an entrance with tilted, pointy outer edges like wings that might fly the whole thing away.
By day, the congregants bask in natural light. The sanctuary goes dark when a cloud passes over, and a golden canopy unfolds at sunset. Nighttime is no less dramatic, as the synagogue hurls brilliant blue and gold light toward the sky.
Every modern touch, however, has an ancient counterpoint. Referencing the ritual ablutions of ancient Jewish priests, a laver (fountain) greets worshipers in front of the building. The sanctuary’s beige carpet even alludes to the desert that the Israelites wandered after escaping Egypt.
The Beth Sholom Congregation was actually founded in Philadelphia proper in 1919. (The name, meaning “House of Peace,” commemorates the end of World War I.) The congregation purchased the Elkins Park property in 1949, at a time when Jews throughout the United States were beginning to move to the suburbs in substantial numbers.
Rabbi Mortimer J. Cohen wrote a letter to Wright—a stranger—and throughout the process would guide the architect through Jewish theology, rituals, and symbols. The building was dedicated in 1959, five months after Wright’s death, and was named a National Historic Landmark in 2007. The American Institute of Architects also selected the synagogue as one of Wright’s 17 most significant contributions to American architecture.