Park Synagogue, Cleveland Heights
Erich Mendelsohn's Masterpiece
In 1917, Anshe Emeth—an Orthodox congregation founded by Polish Jews near Woodland and Broadway Avenues (and later located on East 37th Street)—merged with congregation Beth Tefilo and bought land on East 105th Street in Glenville. Spearheaded by Rabbi Samuel Benjamin, the resultant building (completed in 1922) become one of the first US synagogues to adopt the Jewish Center mode: comprehensive services which (in the case of the Glenville structure) comprised an auditorium, swimming pool, and basketball and handball courts; as well as worship, study, education, library and administrative spaces. The congregation also sponsored lectures, social functions and entertainment; provided space for clubs; housed a branch of the Cleveland Hebrew Schools; and offered Americanization classes.
Led by Rabbi Solomon Goldman, the congregation changed from Orthodox to Conservative about the time of its move to Glenville. Within 20 years, Anshe Emeth Beth Tefilo’s membership reached 920 families, making it the largest congregation affiliated with the United Synagogue of America. Armond Cohen became the congregation's rabbi in 1934.
By 1942, members were migrating en masse to the suburbs—primarily Cleveland Heights—so the congregation sought to establish an eastern branch on the property of the Park School, a huge piece of land situated between Euclid Heights Boulevard and Mayfield Road, just east of Ivydale Road. At the time, the property contained only a few frame structures. A great new complex was envisioned and, in November 1945, a building campaign was launched at a dinner in the Carter Hotel.
Rabbi Cohen was already familiar with the work of Erich Mendelsohn, an architect working in New York and then San Francisco. Together with his family, the architect had escaped Nazi Germany, moving to England and Palestine. Mendelsohn had had an illustrious career in Europe. Among his most admired creations were the De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, England; Expressionist-style department stores in several German cities; and the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany.
Rabbi Cohen was instrumental in bringing Mendelsohn to Cleveland. During his first visit, Mendelsohn sketched his ideas on a blackboard and immediately won the synagogue building committee’s approval to move ahead. The new Park Synagogue would be one of the architect’s first American synagogue commissions, although he would go on to design several others. In all, four were constructed, all in the Midwest. During the course of synagogue planning, the architect also remodeled much of the interior of Rabbi Cohen’s own home on Euclid Heights Boulevard, to conform with International Style principles. Dedication activities for the as-yet-unfinished project were held in December, 1950. Building activity for the original structure was completed by 1953.
The complex’s centerpiece is its vast hemispheric temple dome: 125 feet high, 120 feet in diameter and weighing 680 tons. Reputed to be the third largest in the world at the time of construction, the dome required 180,000 feet of lumber and took eleven weeks to assemble. Its outer layer is pre-formed copper, designed to blend through natural oxidation with the surrounding landscape.
Beneath the dome, the main sanctuary is connected to a fan-shaped assembly hall with folding doors, so that the size can be almost doubled for attendance on High Holy Days. Lighting effects were designed at Nela Park. Mendelsohn also insisted that only clear glass should be used—absolutely no stained glass.
By the mid-1960s, more space was needed. Large donations culminated in the Kangesser wing, dedicated in March 1968, which added an art gallery, another assembly hall with a large auxiliary space for events such as weddings, and numerous smaller rooms. The new wing connects to the main building via an enclosed bridge over a ravine. Around the same time that the Kangesser construction took place, land in Pepper Pike was donated to the congregation for a future educational facility.
Shortly after Park’s dedication in 1950, one critic referred to the synagogue as “the outstanding example of modern Hebrew architecture in America . . . the forerunner of a modern, functional synagogue design.” A curator of the Jewish Museum in New York wrote: “I regard Park Synagogue as the most significant structure of its kind in our generation.” The Cleveland Heights facility is now referred to as Park Main, as the congregation built and maintains a second facility in Pepper Pike.