Monday, March 9, 2015

Butt-Fugly Building: Congregation Mikveh Israel Synagogue V

44 North 4th Street

              ITS A FUCKING BRICK BOX!!!! What a disgrace. Congregation Mikveh Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Philly and second oldest in the United States, deserves a much nicer place than this pile of shitbricks. Independence Mall, the collection of grass lots created to honor Independence Hall and the historic district, deserves a much better-looking building fronting it from this side, even though this thing is across the street from the entrance of its underground parking garage. Everything about this just sucks.
           This is Kalal Kadosh Mikveh Israel's 5th building. The first two were at 3rd and Cherry. The third was a nice William Strickland design located at what is now the site of the unfortunate-looking African American Museum in Philadelphia (I can forgive its butt-fugliness considering it was forced to be hastily constructed in 4 months due to Society Hill NIMBYs who fought its original placement at 6th and Pine, but that's a whole other story). The fourth was a badass structure still standing at the southeast corner of Broad and York designed by the NYC firm of Pilcher and Tachau.
         This, the fifth Mikveh Israel Synagogue, was proposed as early as 1953, when North Philly was well into the process of turning to shit. Though once boasting a large Jewish population with numerous venerated congregations, by this point that had all turned to crap. Mikveh Israel was one of the only ones that didn't follow the Philadelphia Jewish families out to burbs. Around the same time, large areas of land near Independence Hall, filled with unbelievably beautiful treasures of architecture from the Gilded Age, were getting the shit demolished out of them to make way for Independence Mall. Areas surrounding it were parsed out into different renewal areas and were later made available through the Redevelopment Authority.
        Mikveh Israel decided that a move to this new renewal area would not only place them back to their original neighborhood, but also cement their presence with all the visitors that would one day arrive there. They hired Louis Magaziner, who designed them a new place before they even knew where exactly it was going to be located. After spending the rest of the 50s fighting over whether to move to Independence Mall or to the burbs, Mikveh Israel finally went ahead and purchased a plot of land on the future Mall, specifically Independence Mall Renewal Area Unit 3 Parcel 14, otherwise known as the former 401 block of Commerce Street.
       By this point, the Vice President of the Congregation was friends with Louis Kahn, so they hired him to design the new place. As much as I might talk shit about ol' Louis sometimes, I do somewhat admire is religious structures. Before I even knew a damn thing about architecture or shit like that, I enjoyed the Unitarian Church he designed in Rochester, New York for the way it uses indirect light to create a certain kind of ambiance inside. Coincidentally enough, Kahn started working on Mikveh Israel right after that church.
       Kahn took this project very seriously and continuously worked on it from 1961 to 1970. His main theme seemed to be centered around playing with light (just like the Rochester place) using cylinders all over the facade. Kahn supposedly went through re-design after re-design and even went through the trouble of making models of not only the whole complex but of individual pieces of it. By the time 1970 rolled around, there was urgency to get this thing done before the Bicentennial and Kahn's $5 million design wasn't going to happen. Mikveh Israel fired him after 9 years and 10 re-designs. Those designs are still heralded as some of his best shit. Some of the models are still on display at MoMA and others travel around the world to be put on display. The ordeal ended up inspiring a whole book that was published in 2009.

A 1964 design from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
             The Congregation then hired the successor firm of Paul Phillipe Cret, Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larson (now H2L2), for what would by far be their worst design-- which is saying something considering that they're the ones who "modernized" the facade of the Real Estate Trust Company Building.
             From 1972-1975, Mikveh Israel tried to raise enough money to get the new place built, but still came up short with the Bicentennial approaching pretty fucking soon. Then came a great idea: incorporate a museum of American Jewish History to join the brazillion other museums that were proposed for the Bicentennial-era Mall and get that to be the headliner for the new building. It worked. Not only was the congregation able to get a grant from the Bicentennial Committee, a whole new shitload of donors would arrive to help the place get built in time. With the rest of the money borrowed, the congregation went ahead with construction at the end of 1975 on a design even more simplified than originally planned.
            Construction was forced to be pretty fast but didn't even make it on time. On July 4th, 1976, the partially-constructed congregation opened, but didn't have the official opening ceremony until that September.
          So what did we get? A motherfucking brick box facing Independence Mall.

          ... and another shit brick facade facing 4th Street.

This one at least has a little bit of design happening, though trees cover it up most of the year.
          Ever since the museum moved over to its own new building in 2010 (another only slightly-more-interesting box btw), anyone who isn't a member of the congregation even knows this shit is there. Very few tourists ever even venture down former Commerce Street unless they are on some kind of guided tour or are wondering what those Georgia Guidestones-looking things in front of the entrance are. That's crap.

        Speaking of which-- what the fuck is that shit? Let me take an aside here to talk about this shitty piece of public art.

Butt-Fugly Public Art: Netanyahu Memorial by Buky Schwartz

                This pile of rocks right here was created in 1986 to honor Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu, a legendary Israeli Army soldier who attended Cheltenham High School and was killed in action at age 30 during Operation Entebbe on the same day as the Bicentennial. You may recognize his last name from his little brother Benjamin, the current Prime Minister of Israel.
              From what I understand, this guy was pretty badass, and therefore it is understood why there should be a memorial to him at Mikveh Israel. Somehow, this has been interpreted as a rectangular piece of granite that had the middle chipped out of it and then placed back into a rectangle. The artist was Buky Schwartz, a guy who specialized in many sculptures with box, square, box, rectangular, and box-related squarish-rectangular qualities.
            What happened to statues? Memorialize the fucking guy with a statue! Remember the old days, when bad-ass military heroes got kick-ass statues of themselves on big-ass horses and shit!?!? How the hell did cool stuff like that get reduced down to a bunch of fucking granite slabs?! You don't even have to go that far back into history to find a cool military's one from Nicaragua memorializing an unknown soldier:

Now that's how you fucking do it


  1. A Butt-Fugly Building indeed, but in the summer months the landscape is absolutely terrific and one of the very much hidden gems of the city.

  2. From my time working in the Old City tourism biz, I can't tell you how hard it was to help visitors find the place--you pretty much have to be walking through the front door to know it's there. The footpath connecting 3rd to 4th is the only way in, and it isn't even on most maps (though I'm told, on some, it's labeled as "Ben-Gurion Way").

    As for the sculpture, the four pillars don't just memorialize Yoni, but also the three hostages killed during the raid. I think I like it better than the new statute of Haym Solomon on top of that weird cupola.

  3. It's not Haym Solomon. It's Uriah P. Levy. The "weird cupola" reference Monticello.