Chain O’Chum: Historic Buildings and Art

It’s Wednesday, and today’s lunchtime news chum brings a chain that ties historic downtown synagogues to interesting art:

  • Cityshul. A few days ago, I wrote about Wilshire Blvd Temple and their 2-year renovation of the main sanctuary (according to their FB page, they have started work on disassembling the pipe organ this week). WBT has been successful in bringing Judaism back to the downtown core while still reaching out to the Westside. The WSJ covers a similar story (alas, depending on how you get there, it may be behind a paywall): they write about Central Synagogue on the Upper East Side, which is recovering from a devastating fire. This year, they had more than 7,000 members expected to attend Yom Kippur services, and have hundreds of families who are on a wait list to join the synagogue and can expect to linger there for as long as three years. They are supported by an infrastructure that includes nearly 100 full-time employees, 80,000 square feet of space spread across multiple buildings, a well-regarded nursery school, and an endowment exceeding $30 million. Mind you, this is only seven years after a devastating fire tore through the building, which opened in 1872. The congregation spent the next three years as a wandering people, holding high holiday services in the Park Avenue Armory. They met in their own community center and in neighboring churches and wrestled with what to do next. They rebuilt the builiding, reopening on 9/9/2001 (2 days before 9/11). The rebuilt synagogue retained the original Moorish-inspired architecture—including a stone exterior studded with stained glass and cresting into copper-clad towers, intricately patterned walls in saturated colors, tiled floors and rising columns—that provokes gasps upon entering. But subtle tweaks in the design signaled changes ahead, including support for increased use of technology. They’ve rejuvinated the program, and expanded the synagogue’s mission to include nothing short of rejuvenating Judaism across America. Last month, 6,000 people from 15 countries live-streamed the Rosh Hashanah services on their computers and more than 100 others listened in by phone. Quite a remarkable turnaround.
  • Historical Mosaics. History can appear in many places. In Southern California, one often finds history on a particular subset of bank buildings—specifically, those constructed for Home Savings and Loan during the 1960s through 1980s. This reflects the unusual partnership between moneyman Howard F. Ahmanson and artist Millard Sheets, who built some of the most treasured banks in the region. This resulted in banks clad in travertine and trimmed in gold, adorned with mosaic, murals and stained glass, and sculptures that lauded family life and the history of the Golden State. At the former Home Savings in Northridge, built in 1986, a mosaic features local Indians, the Hawk Ranch, the Southern Pacific Railroad, movie cowboy Montie Montana and California State University, Northridge. At a former Home Savings in Encino, built in 1973, images of mountain lions stand near local farmers. And at a former Home Savings in Burbank, built in 1977, a 15-foot mosaic shows children whirling on a carousel like those at the nearby merry-go-round at Griffith Park. Above its doors stand giant metal sculptures of a man, woman and child, reaching toward the heavens. The collaboration with the Millard Sheets Studio produced 40 banks until Ahmanson’s death in 1968, and 80 more until Home Savings was sold to Washington Mutual 30 years later. Some of the murals are cataloged (along with more aspects of the history) at The Art of Home Savings by Adam Arenson. Alas, the banks, now owned by Chase, don’t seem to care about the murals anymore. Since Chase acquired the former Home Savings banks in 2008, it has whitewashed over Sheets murals in San Francisco and Redwood City, and the landmark Chase Bank Tower in Pomona is being threatened with demolition.
  • But Is It Art? Are murals on bank buildings art? Possibly. What about birth? A Brooklyn-based artist plans to give birth in her gallery as a performance art project. Specifically, Marni Kotak, who is 36 and eight months pregnant, is planning to go through the birth of her first child in front of an audience in an art gallery in the Bushwick neighborhood. The gallery has installed a shower and a refrigerator and already has about 15 people signed up to watch. In preparation for this weekend’s “opening” at the Microscope Gallery, Kotak also brought along her grandmother’s bed, a rocking chair and her own paintings that are related to her pregnancy, including a framed sonogram. After birth, Kotak will move onto another performance titled “Raising Baby X” in which she “re-contextualizes the everyday act of raising a child into a work of performance art…”
  • Cameo Cookies. Lastly, a post by cellio has alerted me to an interesting use of Oreo Cookies: as the basis for cameo portraits. In interesting—not to mention tasty and fattening—media to work with. The artist has a number of interesting works on her site, including other projects involving food, as well as hair and other, umm, material.

Bonus: Also related to art: Yesterday was College Radio Day, a day to thank all those outlets (which are increasingly disappearing) that train our up and coming broadcasters. The Washington Post had an interesting article on the past and future of such stations.