Titan of the Temple

Architect Eric Mendelsohn designed the synagogue that became COCA's home, and a new exhibit there celebrates his work

Sep 13, 2000 at 4:00 am
Architect Eric Mendelsohn was one of the European modernists who brought bold and fascinating new structures to life in the first half of the 20th century. His Einstein Tower, completed in 1921 in Potsdam, Germany, is an otherworldly building that looks like something from the space-pimp wardrobe of Bootsy Collins made giant.

Mendelsohn's first American commission was the B'nai Amoona synagogue at 524 Trinity Ave. in University City, completed in 1950, which is now the Center of Contemporary Arts. His design was unusual for any building, let alone the typically boxy temples of the time, with its dramatic parabolic sanctuary roof and huge windows that fill the place with light.

COCA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the building with a Mendelsohn retrospective exhibit in the Anheuser-Busch Gallery, highlighting his life and work with drawings, models, a video, photos, blueprints, a computer display and writings by the architect himself. Special attention is focused on the COCA building.

Mendelsohn was born in 1887 in East Prussia, which became part of Germany and eventually Poland. His curve-heavy designs came to life as a variety of commercial buildings in Germany, but he was forced to emigrate in 1933 as Hitler rose to power. He was commissioned to design structures in England, Israel and finally the U.S., where he designed about 10 synagogues before passing away in 1953.

After B'nai Amoona moved west along with so many of its congregants, the future of the building was in doubt. Community-minded developer Richard Baron essentially killed two birds with one stone when he saved the synagogue by helping fund its conversion to the popular arts center in 1986.

The exhibit on the creative thinker was curated by Mendelsohn scholar Kathleen James-Chakraboty of the University of California at Berkeley and designed by Washington University architecture professor Stephen Leet. In conjunction with the exhibit, COCA has planned bus and bike tours of exemplars of modern St. Louis architecture and a trip to Germany to see more of Mendelsohn's edifices.

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