Our Orthodoxy Feels A Certain Religious Expressionism Embodied In Ohev Sholom…Or…Is It…Talmud Torah.!?
Our Orthodoxy Feels A Certain Religious Expressionism Embodied In Ohev Sholom…Or…Is It…Talmud Torah.!?
Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah, 16th Street at Jonquil, NW, Washington, D.C.
In the upper part of our nation’s 16th Street NW, at the Federal City, there is a built context representing American architectural history; however, largely encompassing styles derivative of Colonial Revival and Victorian motifs.
At the dead end of lower 16th Street, NW, there is a somewhat familiar edifice. It happens to be all white, of the Federal period with Georgian roots–a building that stylistically has been altered over time to its current Neoclassical appearance. We speak of the President’s house–at the beginning of the official period of U.S. History and its representative aesthetic periods. With the the earliest architectural specimens at that lower end of the street, you will find the more recent styles at the other… While the larger context of residential architecture fronting 16th Street largely ends with Colonial Revival and its derivatives, we have the religious Jewish communities to thank for our mid-century modern. After reviewing the other specimen one will quickly see that among all of the “16th Street” examples our best work is in the progression of synagogue. Yet even among these few examples, Ohev Sholom’s building at 16th and Jonquil Streets, NW is the most progressive and unique example. It however is not alone, as it faces another modern edifice on the east side of the principal street. The two harmonize together as a mid-century milestone within a larger context of Colonial Revival. While this mixture is not usually of interest, we happen… to love it!
Talmud Torah of Washington, D.C.
In the early 1950s, the cluster of families that embodied the “Talmud Torah” congregation removed from their edifice at 467 E Street, SW to soon be absorbed in Ohev Sholom Congregation. The unified congregation would eventually occupy temporary quarters at 14th and Emerson Streets, NW. This unification took the Ohev Sholom name, which still exists today. Reform in Judaism and the change in neighborhoods throughout the declining context of the formerlies of Washington, D.C. had resulted in a rather diminished membership in each congregation. The unification was ideal in that regard, representing a new start for the local orthodoxy. Unfortunately, an old landmark, the former synagogue in E Street, was demolished in 1959.
Washington, D.C.’s Original Ohev Sholom
The oldest orthodox synagogue in Washington D.C. was once located at 5th and I Streets, NW—the edifice of the Ohev Sholom congregation—a sect founded in 1887. At the sale of this building in January 1956, plans for a new complex at 16th and Jonquil Streets, NW were announced, along with a drive to raise roughly $300,000 for construction of the synagogue. Plans would change, as more money would be needed.
A New Building For the New Unification of Orthodox in Washington, D.C.
Having worshiped in temporary quarters from 1951 until 1960, the unified congregation must have been elated over what eventually became the $650,000 complex in upper 16th Street, NW (at Jonquil St.). Sometimes referred to as the Jonquil Street Synagogue, the building was designed by John Arnold D’Epagnier (1913-1977)—a Silver Spring architect who graduated from Catholic University (Class of 1936) with a degree in Architecture.
John Arnold D’Epagnier (1913-1977)
After school and apprenticeship-like experience, D’Epagnier married Rita Mary Walsh in 1942 and their first home was at 209 Hawaii Avenue in the District of Columbia—where they created a small family. This a number of children far smaller than the architect’s list of professional creations.
By the 1950s D’Epagnier had opened offices in the Cissel-Lee building, operating at 9525 Georgia Avenue through the 1970s. Ohev Sholom and the church to which he belonged, St. John Baptist Parish, in Colesville were among his few religious commissions. His earliest independent works involved the design of detached residences. For example, Housing Development Corp. used him in the design of numerous $14,750-homes that were included in develops such as the Parkwood Home Project.
“Architect John A. d’Epagnier says he planned the houses with a minimum of hall space, leaving the buyer only useful room space, and that a kitchen expert was called in to design a modern space-saving kitchen.” The Washington Post
In reference to the Parkwood development, a model home had been opened and could be accessed by traveling north on Connecticut Avenue until the juncture of Everett Street where one would take a left, finding the specimen on the right after two blocks. By 1954, D’Epagnier had designed “THE Home of ‘54” in his completion of a type—”the Californian,” a mid-century ranch style residence noted for having an unusually wide overhang at the facade.
Not only did he design residences, but also public and commercial building, and even a hospital and at least one stadium. In 1963, he designed the Taylor Investment Corp. Building, which was a 33,000 square foot office building at 1230 Taylor Street. Nevertheless, residential commissions remained steady for his firm. For example, in the early 1960s he designed several residences for Arcola Knolls, a post-WWII subdivision with associated commercial development. D’Epagnier completed the designs used for at least 11 of these homes all of which proved popular as they sold quite quickly. Between the 1950s and 1960s D’Epagnier employed expressionist and modern styles with some “international” stylistic principals employed. However, by the late 1960s his repertoire was more focused on the “international” in style. At some point shortly before 1970, he had designed one of the largest buildings of his career—the Parklawn building in Rockville, a 1.2 million square-foot space for 5,500 employees including the Public Health Service.
And while these projects sound impressive, much what D’Epagnier designed, especially that of the office-related specimens have gone out of fashion and/or simply did not age well. This is not true, however, of his entire repertoire. Some of his residential buildings are wonderful examples of the period. as well as being quite attractive in their own rite. Yet they all pale in comparison to a certain temple of Judaism and orthodoxy in upper Sixteenth Street NW—that being the Ohev Sholom Synagogue also known as the Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah. And while the style of the building, mirrored generally by the modernism across the street at Tifereth Israel Congregation synagogue (Circa 1958), at 7701 16 Street, NW, the two both stand as being “out of keeping” within the built context of upper 16th Street, NW. Yet it somehow works remarkably well. Perhaps the scale, the appearance of the materials and/or the design quality create a harmony? Who knows? Only it works for us. In fact, its downright delightful. And while some of D’Epagniers early residential work represents some elements if the Colonial Revival, he established himself primary as a modernist. This church emodies some of that movement’s best features in an seemingly expressionist nature.
Dedication of the Temple, 1960
The dedication ceremonies of the new building took place in 1960. It was quite a ceremony with attendance at over 1000 persons. Lecturing on his hope for return to traditional Judaism, Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz of Far Rockaway, New York was the keynote speaker, as he was then chair of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Even the head of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington delivered his thoughts announcing the greetings and congratulations of over 115 congregations nation wide. These were just two of the long tiresome list of “dignitaries”… The synagogue had finally arrived. By the late 20 century, the place had nearly become defunct, yet was, at the last minute, revived by a precocious young rabbi who saved the “national” congregation.
In case you don’t see it—this is a highly unusual building. By 1960, architects had begun experimenting with unusual forms, including exaggerated geometries—expressionism was abound. The Expressionist Architecture motif included “futuristic buildings” and employment of dramatic forms represented with the use of simplified materials and details. In Ohev Sholom, note the arched fenestration in the center of the main portion of the building’s facade.. This almost Gothic arch clings to the past, but only slightly, as the arch we know as Gothic is abstracted with a central bay of three pairs of double door, each featuring six dramatic, geometric panels per door. This entrance is crowned by a low-pitched slope with modernist style lettering in chrome, “Congregation.” The traditional mosaic Hebrew tablets representing the ten commandments rise above the door and its slope above as a rather dramatic gesture. All of this is set with a fenestration of fogged glass separated irregularly by chrome-like aluminum lintels, looking almost “ray-like” as they are perhaps in inspired by the natural pretense of religious fervor. Yet the arch and its dramatic fenestration is coupled with an other wise austere facade clad in concrete panels finished to have the appearance of granite. A some what dramatic stair spans the entire facade; “Jetson-like” light fixtures are positioned along the balustrade. A large wing extends to the north of the building–not in anyway se-metrical. The rear and side elevations are in pale, yellow brick.. The visual sweep of the place really is quite attractive—and, for its own good, maintained perfectly. There are even stars of David here and there, set within light fixtures and windows. The previously mentioned doors are pink, just beaneath the low-rise slope which is a pale yellow. The mosaic tablets are either brown or black. The place pops with arch-ful punch of “Jetsons meet Brutalism, but at temple.”
Interestingly enough, even among the most conservative of the religious Washington Jews, there was thing quite liberal, fantastical gesture and progression in our local architecture. We might even admit to some religious tingles upon viewing the expressive edifice, as we have on our enumerable tours in Upper 16th Street, NW. This tingle or tinge that we speak of is… most certainly…in regards… to our great curatorial chapel of architectural orthodoxy.!?