Temple Beth Israel

Portland Oregon



It's still hopeless, but the top photo comes closest to conveying the sheer physical impact that the Temple Beth Israel has on you, as a human animal, when you approach. Something about the lay of the locality, the pleasantly-hemmed-in quality of the neighborhood, the way you approach, and the size of the looming dome gives this temple a strong presence. I don't even think a military-grade Japanese haptic hologram would be able to duplicate the fascinating gravitational pull this thing has.

For all that power, it's welcoming, maternal, and very beautiful to let your eyes roam over its terra cotta facade patterns and the massing of its two squat square Byzantine towers. Look at those colors. One of the most engaging, complete, satisfying buildings in Portland. Maybe the best.




The credited architects: there's a long string of them. (Morris) Whitehouse & (Walter) Church, John Virginius Bennes and Harry A. Herzog, but according to one source the design lead seems to have been Herman Brookman.

Brookman was a successful New York mansion designer brought out to Portland in 1923 to design a house for M. Lloyd Frank, of merchants Meier and Frank. Brookman was 31. The Franks were rich. The mansion was called Fir Acres, and it and its formal garden and its astonishing view of Mt. Hood are now part of Lewis & Clark College as administration and event space.

Temple Beth Israel was Brookman's next project, nothing like Fir Acres at all. It's worth mentioning at this point that Brookman was Jewish, Frank was Jewish, the people going to temple were... Jewish, and that most of the other architects in town were not. Brookman spent the rest of his career, until 1965, in Portland, mainly designing big houses, nothing like Temple Beth Israel at all.





How does the rest of Brookman's career inform our understanding of the Temple? Well, not a whole lot. We do know that Brookman was a versatile stylist, and from Fir Acres we know he had an excellent eye for the integration of ornament.

He brought the ornamental metal worker Oscar Bach out to Portland to work on the Frank mansion, and Bach's work is somewhere in the temple too.

According to Carla Breeze (American art deco: architecture and regionalism) at least some of the art glass in the temple was done by Albert Gerlach, the Star-of-David chandeliers were designed by Fred Baker of Portland, and some of the woodcarving might have been done by Alois Lang.

And when Brookman designed the 1927 Commodore Apartments for the oldest daughter of Aaron Meier, he not only indulged in a bunch of polychrome terra cotta but incorporated a bunch of pelicans. Pelicans. (There's one above.) There's a 95% chance that the terra cotta for the Commodore project, and for Temple Beth Israel, came out of Gladding, McBean's plant in Auburn, Washington. In 1926 and 1927 the head modeler at Auburn was an ex-Austrian named Louis Shubert.

So the temple features the work of five known master craftsmen, in differing media, plus the others we don't know about. Choosing those craftsmen, coordinating the styles, colors and thematic message of these pieces, figuring out the architectural placement and lighting and sightlines, approving and installing the work, all to produce a single architectural experience for the user, that's the essence of an entire lost art and discipline.

That, I'm guessing, was Herman Brookman's role here.





(more to come)









Copyright 2009 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.