On Wilshire, Restoring Sacred Space

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 1939.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 1939. | Photo: Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

The scaffolding will be up for several more months around the tall, octagonal base, crowned cylinder, and high dome of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The landmark building, three blocks east of Western Avenue, has been empty since October 2011, except for teams of construction workers and restoration artists.

The building won't reopen until September 2013 for the services of Rosh Hashanah.

[Reporter Susan Freudenheim covers the progress of restoration in this story from the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.]

Congregation B'nai B'rith and its charismatic chief rabbi, Edgar Magnin, celebrated the opening of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in June 1929 when the city's growing Jewish community, economically and socially more secure, turned Hollywood glamour into sacred space.

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Congregation B'nai B'rith began in 1862, when Los Angeles was a raw and violent "cow town" with a murder-a-day reputation (as chronicled by Harris Newmark, one of the city's original Jewish residents, who became president of the congregation in 1887). The first home of B'nai B'rith was dedicated in 1873 at the corner of Temple Street and Broadway in the new "Westside" of Los Angeles that was already turning away from the old plaza.

In 1895, the congregation moved to a larger building at 9th and Hope streets, further west and south and in the city's newest suburbs.

Under Construction, 1929.jpg
Under Construction, 1929. | Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Los Angeles was spreading even further west in the early 1920s, propelled by the newly completed Wilshire Boulevard. By buying land beyond the ends of the streetcar lines in 1921, Congregation B'nai B'rith placed itself at the dividing line between city and suburb, between old and new Los Angeles. When the congregation's board approved plans for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in 1927, it chose a design that didn't mimic the style of European churches or the popular look in Los Angeles of Spanish colonial nostalgia.

The hybrid Romanesque-Byzantine building they chose, designed by a team of architects headed by Abram Edelman (who also designed the Shrine Auditorium), asserted a new identity for Jewish Los Angeles and the place of the Jewish community in the life of the city.

Producer Irving Thalberg and the Warner brothers (Jack, Harry, and Abe) financed the decorative scheme of the interior, including murals by Hugo Ballin, a studio artist, who painted a panorama of Jewish history around the 320-foot circumference of the dome. (Ballin also painted murals for the Griffith Observatory and the lobby of the Los Angeles Times.)

The auditorium was designed to seat 1,800 congregants beneath a 100-foot-high, coffered ceiling. UCLA physicist Vernon Knudsen tested its acoustics. The Kimball Company built the immense, 4,102 pipe organ. The stained glass "rose window" facing Wilshire Boulevard was designed by the Oliver Smith Studios of Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania (now being restored by the Judson Studio of Pasadena). The window depicts a Torah scroll and a Star of David in the central roundel and symbols of the tribes of Israel in the outer ring, themes picked up in the tall west and east windows.

Soaring Interior
Soaring Interior | Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

Los Angeles moved on in the years after World War II, as did the Jewish community, to the Valley and further west. The Wilshire Boulevard Temple might have languished into irrelevance by the 1990s or been absorbed by a church serving the neighborhood's new Korean community after 2000.

Instead, the members of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple chose to preserve their home, repair the effects of time, and expand their presence on a larger campus. They turned to architect Brenda Levin, best known for her contributions to the restoration of City Hall, the Griffith Observatory, and the Wiltern Theatre, to oversee the work.

When more fundraising is done, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple campus will include, among other facilities, a community center for use by everyone in the surrounding neighborhood. A school, an events space, and new social and health services are possible, too.

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple in 1929 was on the margin between two forms of the city -- its older, urban core and booming westward suburbs. In 2012, it's on the edge again, between the affluent Westside and the diverse and densifying residential corridors that lead to downtown.

The members of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in restoring their sacred space, have embraced the complex place their city has become, along with the traditions and memories of 150 years of Jewish Los Angeles.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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