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Percival Goodman-designed synagogue in Millburn faces questionable renovation

April 3, 2009
Congregation B'Nai Israel, Millburn

Congregation B'Nai Israel, Millburn

Congregation B’Nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, a 1951 Percival Goodman design that has been called “the first truly modern synagogue in the country,” is facing renovation plans that may negatively impact the building’s integrity.

Congregation B’nai was a milestone in synagogue design by Percival Goodman, a nationally renowned architect best known for his synagogues and religious buildings. He held the rank of professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, where he taught from 1946 through 1971. Goodman practiced out of a New York office from 1936 t0 1979, and was a devout Modernist, a style he used for all of the over 50 religious buildings he designed throughout his career, along with his works of residential and public architecture. He was also well known as an urban planning theorist.

In his design for Congregation B’nai Israel, Goodman incorporated many significant elements common to Modern design, including a focus on integration with nature, a long, low form, and strategic use of natural light and windows.  Furthermore, the building was a milestone for it’s integration of art and architecture, as it featured commissioned works of Modern art by Herbert Ferber, Adolf Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell.

While the building was expanded in 1954 and 1995, it today retains its significant Modern architectural integrity. However, the Congregation is now moving forward with plans, first proposed last year, to again significantly expand the building, and the plans are causing some concern. Particularly contested has been the scale and massing of the the two-story addition that the plans propose to append to one side of the building, lengthening the front facade, which faces busy Millburn Avenue. The building is entirely one story, and there is concern that this addition will draw attention away from the historic front facade and tower over the original building. However, recent articles in the Star-Ledger, the Item, and the New Jersey Jewish News indicate that the synagogue believes that their plans respect the building’s historic significance and are the best possible compromise between the current building and the changing needs of an ever-growing congregation. The majority of the synagogue’s members appear to feel the same, and construction is scheduled to being sometime this spring.

Unfortunately, Congregation B’nai Israel is not listed on the New Jersey or National Registers and is not locally designated. Congregation B’nai Israel quintessentially illustrates the problems facing Modern buildings across the country.  While this particular example is lucky enough to be the work of an unquestionably significant architect, much of our Modern heritage only has design to validate its significance, and that design is not always appreciated or respected. Understandably, appreciation for the architectural ideals of an era that produced the suburban boom and the obliteration of scores of historic neighborhoods and landmarks in the name of “urban renewal” often does not come naturally, but as more and more of this genre attains 50 years of age, preservationists must continue to advocate proactively for the Modern built environment, while the opportunity to work with intact Modern buildings still exists.

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