Let There Be Light: The Chicago Loop Synagogue
by guest author John Cramer
With its looming business towers and busy sidewalks and the noise of impatient car traffic, it’s surprising that the loudly beating heart of Chicago’s Loop has its share of quiet contemplative religious spaces. There’s the Gothic-spired Chicago Temple Building at Clark and Washington (Holabird & Roche, 1924) which houses a Methodist “sky chapel” on its top floor, nearly 600 feet in the air. Nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church at 110 W. Madison (1950) is very much at street level but inside it feels miles away from the city; whereas a traditional church might have large stained glass windows, architects Vitzhum & Burns shut the city out and filled in window niches in with elaborate bas-relief religious sculptures, brightly lit with strings of brilliant fluorescent light.
The Chicago Loop Synagogue at 16 S. Clark, completed in 1957, is among the last structures ever constructed in the Loop as a dedicated house of worship. As at the Temple Building and St. Peter’s Church, the Loop Synagogue’s architects adapted the design to its hyper-urban setting and used its hemmed-in site as an opportunity to achieve something introspective, inspiring, and uniquely modern.
The site of today’s synagogue has been the home of its Orthodox Jewish congregation since 1929. After a fire destroyed their earlier building, the congregation rebuilt in a modern style, commissioning architects Loebl, Schlossman, & Bennett, who had a thirty-year pedigree as designers of outstanding local religious structures, most notably Chicago’s imposing Temple Sholom at 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive, completed in 1929.
For the Loop Synagogue, Loebl, Schlossman, & Bennett’s design shirked the monumentality of the firm’s early history-inspired work and instead composed the Loop Synagogue using simple planes of metal and glass. At street level, clear floor-to-ceiling storefront glass gives Loop passersby full view of the stone-lined lobby and a glimpse of the entrance to the primary worship space above. Above the street are the expansive stained glass sanctuary windows playfully capped it with jagged overhanging metal cornice. Above the main glass doors along Clark Street is a bronze and brass sculpture by Israeli sculptor Henri Azaz depicting outstretched hands grouped with a blessing in Hebrew and English from the Book of Numbers: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord, make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious to thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.”
Loebl, Schlossman, & Bennett’s design for the upper sanctuary is pure mid-century modern, finely-detailed but restrained in color and ornament,. Restrained, though, is not a good description for American artist Abraham Rattner’s fantastic stained glass that makes up the sanctuary’s east wall. The window’s theme was taken from Genesis’ telling of the first act of creation: “And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.”
And boy, is there light. Rattner’s window shatters the space’s reserved minimalism, bathing the monotone sanctuary – and any worshippers in it — in fireworks of color. Architects and stained glass artist here worked together, embracing the confines of their urban site and turned its limitations into opportunities for great architecture, lining the sanctuary walls with smooth white stone, then painting onto them with light stories and symbols of Jewish life.