Temple's future set in stone

Project: Temple Oheb Shalom's congregation commits to its present location by undertaking a $3 million renovation.

October 09, 1999|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

From the day it opened in 1960, Temple Oheb Shalom was considered one of the most architecturally significant religious structures in Baltimore.

It was the only building in central Maryland designed in part by Walter Gropius, a world-renowned master of modern architecture, and it represented a new model for worship in reform Judaism.

Tomorrow at 11 a.m., the congregation will break ground for a $3 million expansion and modernization project that is designed to prepare the building for another 40 years of service.

The project marks a commitment by the congregation to remain at its current location on Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore City, rather than move farther out into the suburbs.

It also represents an effort to modify the building to suit the needs of the present congregation without completely altering the character of the spaces designed by Gropius and his colleagues.

"The slogan of our capital campaign is `Honoring our past, building our future,' and that's what we're doing," said Freda S. Sussman, president of the congregation. "We're really honoring the integrity of a world-class piece of architecture. It's a fantastic structure."

Worship practices have changed significantly since the building opened, and congregation members wanted to change the building to reflect the way they worship today, explained Mark Levin, partner of Levin/Brown & Associates, architect for the expansion and a member of the congregation.

That means breaking down the scale of the building, adding a learning center and making the worship experience more participatory, he said. The architects also are introducing details, textures and colors with the goal of making worship and gathering spaces warmer and more intimate than the original spaces.

"We're moving away from the austere design principles of the late 1950s and early 1960s," Levin said. Yet, "we're trying to make changes that are compatible with the original design. It's more evolution than revolution."

This is the first major renovation to the temple, which Gropius designed in collaboration with Sheldon I. Leavitt of Norfolk, Va. Atlantic Builders is the general contractor for the improvements.

The property at 7310 Park Heights Ave. is the third location for Temple Oheb Shalom, which was founded in 1853 and has more than 1,000 families in its membership.

The building's most distinctive feature is a series of four large vaults that give the Park Heights Avenue facade and the interior of the main sanctuary their character.

According to historian Avrum Kampf, Gropius felt that he had designed the ideal 20th century synagogue at Oheb Shalom by merging "the turbine with the Torah," in the tablet forms of his facade.

The work calls for construction of a new side entrance and lobby, a multimedia resource center and more meeting rooms. In addition, the main sanctuary and a companion social hall will be reconfigured to create two sanctuaries, one of which will double as a multi-purpose space.

One of the most dramatic changes will be the reversal of the direction of seats in the main sanctuary, so they face north instead of south and slope downward instead of upward. The architects and contractors also are upgrading mechanical and electric systems and improving acoustics. The signature Park Heights Avenue facade will not change.

Funded by proceeds from the congregation's $8 million capital campaign, the work is to be completed in phases by late 2001. According to campaign chairman Ralph Brunn, the congregation already has raised about $7 million.

Above all, Sussman said, congregation leaders feel an obligation to preserve the building and enhance it for future generations.

"This is a landmark building in Jewish architecture," she said. "I look at it as a gift from the past -- from our parents and grandparents. Now it's our turn to pass it on."

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