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21 First Drafts: Louis Kahn's Ahavath Israel Synagogue

Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

Louis Kahn
Ahavath Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Date completed: 1938

Getting the gig:
When researchers and scholars write about the buildings of Philly monumentalist Louis Kahn, the story often starts with his 1940 Oser House, a red cedar home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, built for Jesse Oser, a friend from his days at Central High, on the former estate of hat baron J.B. Stetson. But Kahn's first solo work wasn't a home for the upper-class in a suburb chosen as the fictional birthplace of Mad Men's Betty Draper, but a gathering place and community center for immigrants in his hometown of Philadelphia. Kahn's initial independent project was a Jewish synagogue in the Oak Lane neighborhood of North Philly, Ahavath Israel. A conservative synagogue founded in 1927 to serve a mostly Eastern European congregation, the temple would deliver services in Yiddish once a month up through the '40s. While no detailed information about Kahn's hiring exists, the architect, who was then working with George Howe on projects for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, did feel he was chosen because a "young man would give them more for their money." His first outline in 1936 appeared to have not only been accepted, but used as an unofficial contract.

Description and Reception:
A solid, cube-like mass that sticks out from the adjoining row houses, the structure has a Modernist bent and simple layout, an industrial shul with a two-story prayer hall, dark metal stairs, an upper floor balcony and caretaker's apartment out back. A row of glass bricks near the top of the rear wall projected lights onto the bimah (reading platform) and ark. According to George H. Marcus, a Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Houses of Louis Kahn, the rectangular, brick industrial-style building has been altered quite a bit since it was originally constructed, and as far as scholars know, was never photographed in its original state. He theorizes the gig may have been handed off by another architect, but there aren't many details, and the project seems to have had no real influence.

Impact on His Career:
Completed after Kahn worked as an apprentice on the New Deal-era Jersey Homesteads project and before his first residential commissions, the Ahavath synogogue may have been the resume bullet point that earned him a handful of similar commissions, including an unrealized project under discussion in the' 50s to design the Adath Jeshurun temple in a nearby neighborhood. (The Philly architect was contacted by a congregation left a little envious after seeing the beautiful building Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Beth Sholom congregation in the same part of North Philly). But that wasn't the last of Kahn's religious works; his unrealized Mikveh Israel design contained hints of the backlighting utilized in his first project, his First Unitarian Church in Rochester is considered a masterpiece, and he would later design the still-standing Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, New York, in 1966, which was recently remodeled despite protests from many Kahn scholars.

Famous Future Works:
Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven: 1953), Salk Institute for Biological Studies (La Jolla: 1960), First Unitarian Church (Rochester: 1962), Phillips Exeter Academy Library (1965: Exeter), Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth: 1972), Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park (New York: 2012)

Current Status:
The home of Ahavath Israel until 1982, the building is currently operating as Grace Temple Baptist Church.

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