Temple Israel: Mid-Century Modern at Finest

On Architecture By ROGER COFFEY, AIA

MID-CENTURY MODERN: Temple Israel, 2004 E. 22nd Pl., was built in the mid-century modern architecture style in 1955 by Manhattan Construction. It was designed by architect Percival Goodman who was known for his cutting-edge buildings. At more than 60 years of age, Temple Israel is pristinely maintained and looks as if it could have been built yesterday.

ROSSY GILLE for GTR Newspapers

Gently nestled into the sloping hillside of 22nd Street in Tulsa is an example of mid-century modern architecture at its finest.

With an exterior palate of subtle shades of gray, Temple Israel, 2004 E. 22nd Pl., is a feast for the eyes. Built by Manhattan Construction in 1955, the building was designed by architect Percival Goodman who was known for his cutting-edge buildings. Goodman designed more than 50 synagogues during his distinguished career. The Temple was the third building for this Reform congregation.

The form of this steel and concrete structure clearly identifies the function of its parts. A tall worship and assembly wing on the east connects to a welcoming one story lobby, which, in turn, connects to a two-story split level education wing on the west. Administrative offices are below, connecting to the lobby, while an early childhood learning center is located above with ground level access on the far west.

At the exterior north end of the sanctuary wing is a dramatic bas-relief sculpture by artist Bernard Frazier, depicting the Ten Commandments. They appear on two 40-foot concrete pylons separated by a slender blue glass shaft with fenestration, recalling the Shield of David.

Entering the lobby through doors that are a grillage of wood and glass, the concrete coffered ceiling, the gray slate floor and the stone walls clearly reflect the architect’s intent that the interior be a continuation of the exterior design.

Turning left into the sanctuary, one is overwhelmed with the volume of the space. It is not a large space, but the ceiling, over three stories in height, soars. Along the east and west walls is a continuous band of clerestory windows flooding the room with light. At the north end is the Bima, which has been slightly altered from the original to make it more accessible to the congregation. The walls of the Bima are painted a vibrant, bright red, an unusual feature for a Temple. The red color provides a powerful backdrop for three ritual objects: The Menorah, The Fruitful Vine and The External Light.

The External Light was created by sculptor Seymour Lipton whose work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Chicago Art Institute and the San Francisco Art Museum. This suspended sculpture suggests a winged crown of light with force lines drawing the eye upward and outward. Just seeing it is a special experience.

Although the sanctuary originally was designed for 316 worshippers, tall folding doors on the south open to the adjacent convocation center, allowing overall seating for up to 1,000 for High Holy Days. The bands of clerestory windows continue along the east and west walls. This design, along with a matching ceiling, give continuity to the whole space. Percival Goodman cleverly anticipated this flexible multi-purpose usage.

At more than 60 years of age, Temple Israel is pristinely maintained and looks as if it could have been built yesterday. Understandably, a few alterations have occurred. The convocation center stage has been removed and this space repurposed for the Miller Auditorium. Two Hebrew Instruction classrooms were added below the convocation center. These were damaged in a 1984 flood but have been restored. A covered walkway drop off has been provided for the south entrance to the lobby. The second floor with children’s classrooms has been enlarged to become an early childhood learning center.

Temple Israel deserves our attention and recognition. Many thanks go to Rabbi Emeritus Charles Sherman for his time and care in providing me with information to write this column.

Updated 04-25-2016

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