October 15, 2019

The Architect and the Rabbi: Wilshire Boulevard Renovation is a Collaboration, History Lesson

Early on a recent Wednesday morning, architect Brenda Levin bounded up the metal steps temporarily installed at the center of the historic sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Leading the way up 10 flights — that’s 100 feet — she climbed to the normally inaccessible domed ceiling, high enough to touch the enormous Hebrew letters circling the oculus’ opening. Those letters, inscribed in gold, spell out the most sacred words of Torah: Shema Yisra’el …

Levin, dressed in a hard hat and elegant silk blouse, stood amid a forest of scaffolding and took a moment to greet the conservator meticulously fixing spots where gold leaf had flecked off the ceiling during the 83 years since the moguls of Hollywood bankrolled the structure. Wilshire Boulevard Temple was built to be the fanciest building money could buy for the denizens of the silver screen’s Reform Jewish congregation, and its dramatic, quasi-Byzantine-Moorish design by architect A.M. Edelman (son of the congregation’s first rabbi, Abraham Edelman) was constructed over a span of just 18 months, at a cost of $1.5 million, under the leadership of Senior Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin (who presided from 1919 to 1984). It was made to compete with the cathedral-scaled churches and ornate office buildings that were lining up along Los Angeles’ grandest new street, because, in 1929, the temple’s site on Wilshire Boulevard, just east of Western Avenue at the then-westernmost tip of the city, was one of the best addresses in town. Nothing else would have satisfied the ambitions of Jack and Harry Warner, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor or the boy-wonder producer Irving Thalberg.

Much in the surrounding neighborhood has changed over the years, with the waxing and waning of both real estate and demography, and despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the synagogue — now at the heart of the lively, multiethnic Koreatown neighborhood — eventually became under-used and allowed to fall into a process of slow decay. That lasted until October 2008, when its need for repair became inevitable after a potentially lethal, foot-long chunk of plaster fell from the sanctuary’s ceiling in the middle of the night. The dome was quickly netted for protection, and plans for a full overhaul of the historic component of the now-expanded campus were put on the front burner.

The ceiling of the sanctuary contains a circular opening, called the oculus, with the words of the Shema circling its perimeter. All the gold leaf on the Hebrew lettering has been cleaned and restored. Photo courtesy of Wilshire Boulevard Temple

So now, and just about every Wednesday since the day after the 2011 High Holy Days, Levin, Los Angeles’ most renowned restoration architect (and an excellent designer of new buildings in her own right), has been making a weekly pilgrimage to the site, which, under her guidance, will be a full-fledged construction zone until the work is completed by a Rosh Hashanah 2013 deadline.

Levin’s devotion to Wilshire Boulevard Temple runs deep — she, along with her husband, public policy expert and civic advocate David Abel, has been a member of the congregation for more than two decades, and she once served on its board. Her reputation for bringing new life to prominent historic buildings, ranging from Los Angeles’ City Hall, the Griffith Observatory and the Wiltern Theatre to the historic downtown Bradbury Building, would certainly qualify her for this job, but, as she put it, the fact that she’s been sitting in the pews dreaming about such things as how to “block out the view of those fluorescent lights in the choir space” during many a holiday service makes her irreplaceable.

“If she lived in New Zealand, she would have gotten the job,” said Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who has been senior rabbi at the temple since 2003. “She is a national treasure.”

Calling it “a true privilege” of a job, Levin said she has chosen to be more present on the site than a senior architect might ordinarily be, overseeing all details of the repair, reworking and refining — which include creating invisible seismic structural reinforcement within the walls as well as installing, for the very first time, an air conditioning and heating system. There’s also the repair of the pews — with a new color scheme for the upholstery and carpeting — and, perhaps most important, reconfiguration of the bimah to make the stage and podium more accessible, enabling aliyahs for the disabled and elderly for the first time and allowing Torah readers to be more visible (think of the nervous, short 13-year-old).

Levin also has overseen a complete cleaning and careful repair of all of the structure’s ornate surfaces and conservation of artist Hugo Ballin’s historic murals depicting the history of the Jewish people. (Ballin is the same Samuel Goldwyn protégé whose paintings also adorn the walls of the Los Angeles Times’ Globe Lobby and the Griffith Observatory.)

A paintings conservator repairs damaged areas of the Hugo Ballin biblical murals in the synagogue’s historic sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Along with all that, Levin has supervised repair and upgrading of every inch of the exterior of the 100-by-100-foot building, which, when all is done, will be somewhat darker in color, in keeping with its original, earthier hue. Currently, dozens of workers can be seen each day standing on sky-high scaffolding, arduously filling in wall cracks in what looks like an endless process.

“The challenge here,” Levin said, standing in the sanctuary in one of a series of interviews over the course of several months, “is how do you honor such a strong and significant architectural space? It’s one of the best rooms in all of Los Angeles — if not the best — so how do you honor it, but also, in a sense, reinvent it?”

Once the work is complete, those familiar with the space will notice that the sanctuary, overall, is brighter, cleaner, more comfortable and a bit more, well, modern. But, Levin is quick to say, it will also seem completely familiar throughout. Its historic fixtures won’t change, for example, but the lighting throughout the sanctuary will be more energy-efficient, balanced and also able to be controlled for dramatic effect, “like in a theater,” she said.

“What you really want is for the architecture to augment your experience,” Levin added. So instead of leaving you worrying about feeling too hot in summer or cold in winter, “What we’re doing is to augment your comfort to pray, sing, watch your child chant from Torah … whatever it is you are there for, so you own it, so you feel ownership of it.”

And this is just the first phase of the makeover of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s eastern campus, located in an area that Leder calls the heart of “the latest migration of new Jewish kids.” This phase, which will also produce a new six-floor parking structure (three above ground and three below), a school and a tikkun olam (literally, “healing the world”) center, is expected to cost some $150 million.

The site’s zoning would have allowed for a much larger development, but, Leder said, “We chose to remain low-density, with a half-dozen open courtyards, so that this would be a gathering place.”

It’s all part of an effort to breathe new life into a crucial hub of L.A.’s Jewish history, and it’s a mission that Leder and Levin — the architect and the rabbi — expect will impact Los Angeles far beyond just the current preservation project. They envision the revitalization of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and its city-block campus literally helping to change the face of this part of Los Angeles not just for Jews, but for everyone, because part of the plan is creating whole new plethora of resources — a social service center, learning center, social hall and prayer hall — open for use by the entire population, Jew and non-Jew, from the neighborhoods surrounding the temple.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder and architect Brenda Levin discuss the renovations.  Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Before starting on any part of this project, the synagogue’s board of trustees — which for years had been more focused on expanding its highly successful Westside campus — had to be convinced of the need. Though this was the place from which it drew its name and where the whole congregation came together for the holiest holiday services, the huge investment needed wasn’t a given. They considered selling the property, a concept Leder said he couldn’t stand for. “It would have become a Korean church,” he said. So to make the picture real, he’d take potential funders out around the immediate neighborhood to illustrate his point.

“We’d go to Fourth [Street] and New Hampshire [Avenue], and we’d get out across the street from a beautiful old synagogue that was Sinai Temple, and there’s a gigantic cross on the front of it, just above the Ten Commandments in Hebrew, and I’d just look at people, and I’d say: ‘That’s the other alternative; it’s very disturbing.’ ”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s board undertook a demographic study of changes in the surrounding neighborhoods from 2000 to 2005, covering the area from West Hollywood on the west, to Eagle Rock and Pasadena on the east, stretching from Adams Boulevard on the south, up to Hollywood Boulevard on the north — roughly the range from which they could hope to draw congregants.

What they found, Leder said, was “a 64 percent increase in Jewish households where the heads of the household are in their 40s and 50s. And what does that tell you? Those are the people with children. And the number of people in their 30s was big, too.” His board, he said, “wouldn’t green-light anything anecdotally. So, their question was, ‘Can you raise any money?’ ” They considered, he said, “Maybe we should just fix up the sanctuary — we all agreed we had to do that — and not worry about the rest. But I told them that didn’t make sense. Because then you’d have a beautiful building that’s empty most of the time.”

Leder, 52, who just passed his 25th anniversary as a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, began fundraising in earnest in 2007, soon after he was named senior rabbi and, unwittingly, just before the nation’s economy took a nosedive. Although on his first outings he’d quickly raised about

$50 million, he said, after 2008 the next $40 million was much harder to bring in. Now, he’s closing in on a promise for another $5 million, which will bring the total to $95 million. It’s a substantial beginning by any count, but he still needs at least $40 million more just for phase one.

Beyond the sanctuary restoration, which is costing about $50 million in itself, the temple paid $20 million for land in order to own the full city block. There’s been about $20 million in carrying costs — a bridge loan was needed, Leder said — and the next $40 million will pay for classrooms for the new day school (the nursery school will go into an existing structure) and a parking lot big enough to hold more than 500 cars and a block-long tikkun olam center where, among other things, congregants can volunteer. Another phase — which will need yet more funds — will include a new courtyard, fixing up the existing school, plus building a structure for events and programing. In its sum total it’s vast and would cost far more than any figure Leder is as yet ready to name.

The master plan by Levin & Associates Architects envisions all that could be built on the campus.

For now, talking about any given portion of the project can animate the rabbi. Particularly the part about the kids coming up in what are still new nursery and day schools (in addition to the K-12 religious school) on this campus, for example, and even more so when conversation turns to the tikkun olam center, which he describes as not just a food pantry — the congregation already offers one in a somewhat more limited form on Sunday mornings — but also a medical and dental clinic for those in need.

“Right now, we’re in the process of doing the due diligence to find the right people to operate the tikkun olam center,” Leder said. “Were talking to people at PATH [the L.A. social service group]; we’re talking to the Korean community; we’re creating and strengthening relationships so that when we open the door, we’re staffed and running it in a way that meets the real needs of the community, not in a way that we perceive or imagine it to be. … There’s not another synagogue in the world that interfaces with the Korean community the way that we can.”

Both architect Levin and Rabbi Leder point to the nearby subway as one of the extraordinary assets for the neighborhood, as well, imagining commuters from downtown hopping on the subway to get to and from the temple, or using the future Westside extension that will one day go all the way to Santa Monica on the same line. And they imagine churches, community members and even other synagogues holding events in the new facilities, which will include a fully kosher kitchen, a cafe and, Leder said, a new mikveh, only the second non-Orthodox mikveh in Los Angeles.

“It will,” architect Levin asserts, “reinforce Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s commitment not only to this site, but to this community at large, as well as to the Jewish community, in terms of investing in the future of Jewish children, and by being a good neighbor and investing in teaching, learning, prayer and charity. That’s a huge statement in this community.”

To this, Rabbi Leder adds his uncontained optimism: “When people ask me what the temple’s mission is, I tell them, ‘We make Jews,’ ” he said, pointing to the many unaffiliated and secular Jews who have joined the Westside branch of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Reform congregation. It’s the same kind of underserved and often disenfranchised Jews or aspiring converts that he wants to reach here.

“The thing that compels me most is I feel the incredible potential of the combination of freedom and capitalism and Torah in a place like Los Angeles that has never existed before for the Jews,” Leder said.

“We can do anything here. We can’t do everything, but we can do anything.”