Seeing the Light

Seeing the Light

Sidney Eisenshtat has been popular in the news lately, but not for good reasons. His uniquely modern Friars Club in Beverly Hills was unceremoniously torn down last fall after it had fallen on hard times. Meanwhile, several of his mid-century buildings are in need of TLC, and before its renovation, none fell into that category more than his 1953 Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.

Echoing the style of many mid-century synagogues, Eisenshtat created what has been called a “tent in the desert,” a building with a temporary spirit created with expressive use of red brick and concrete, reinforced by articulating the sanctuary and the accompanying social hall as a single exterior room.

But prior to the renovation the building, already suffering from neglect and designed with a 1960s penchant for tight spaces, suffered perhaps more from a series of unfortunate “upgrades” that had left it cramped, dark, and taste-challenged. The temple’s unique artwork had also become dirty and tired.

The recently-completed renovation, conducted by LA firm Rios Clementi Hale, has created a space that is almost the opposite, where light, transparency, and flexibility dominate and inspire. New technologies have also picked up where Eisenshtat would have gone if he could.

“Our renovation built on the original concept and the original feeling,” said firm associate Mike Sweeney.

After passing through the faithfully restored circular entry court, visitors enter the lobby, whose entry has been simplified and fitted with a large and very light glass screen wall that leads, through a light-filled corridor floored with light Israeli limestone, to the entry doors of the sanctuary. The older version of the entry, by contrast, had included a row of industrial-grade glass doors, leading to a dark lobby with the hidden sanctuary doors treated almost as an afterthought.

The former sanctuary was equally dark. Its beautiful stained glass windows were covered with grime and had been largely blocked off. The space was supplemented with rigid theater seating, a clunky drop ceiling, and cold and murky lighting. Between the darkness, the rows of seats, and a huge stage, the interior looked more like an aging movie theater than a temple.

Now visitors entering the sanctuary will be struck by an important new element: the ceiling “oculus,” a cone-shaped skylight that channels a huge amount of soft daylight into the sanctuary and serves as a new focal point, especially for services conducted in the round. The oculus is surrounded by a group of inset lights that evoke a constellation of stars. Thanks to the sanctuary floor being leveled off and the bema, or raised dais, being lowered five feet, the space feels unified.

“Everything was too big before,” noted Sweeney. “Like a living room where the couch didn’t fit.” The unification, synagogue officials added, broke down the barriers between the clergy and the congregation. New light-colored (and quite comfortable) wood and fabric chairs can be arranged in any way the temple wants.

Much of the synagogue’s original artwork, including bronzes, stained glass windows, mosaics and enamels have also been restored by Griswold Conservation Associates.  This includes a tile mural by Joseph Young and windows by Perli Pelzig. But the highlight is Bernard Rosenthal’s artful metalwork representing, among other things, the eternal flame and the Lions of Judah decorating the Torah ark and parts of the building, inside and out.

In the social hall, behind the sanctuary, a raised ceiling restores symmetry to the space while circular in-ceiling LED lights put a modern spin on what once looked like a series of crystal chandeliers at a Marriot ballroom. The firm also uncovered original sconces on the wall, uplighting them with LEDs, as they had in the main sanctuary. Sweeney likens uncovering such original, formerly underused, objects to discovering lost treasure.

A small chapel across the entry court was also restored, and if the synagogue can raise the funds it will continue the renovation, fixing up the temple offices, its school, and much of its landscaping. Until that time, the temple itself has been energized for the 21st century, it’s Modernist spirit renewed and improved. One can’t help but regret that Beverly Hills officials didn’t have the same vision for the Eisenshtat’s Friars Club or the several other Modernist masterpieces recently torn down in the city.