Refined Jewish Museum Shows Up Drab Philadelphia Mall: Review

Museum of American Jewish History
James Polshek designed a tall glass volume so that the activity within the museum would be visible from Independence Mall across the street. A rooftop light sculpture by Ben Rubin evokes the eternal light found in every synagogue. Photographer: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO for Ennead Architects via Bloomberg

Nov. 23 (Bloomberg) -- A shapely classical goddess in marble benignly waves visitors into the new home of Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History.

Commissioned for the city’s centennial exhibition in 1876, the statue is inscribed with the title “Religious Liberty” and was a gift of the service organization B’nai B’rith.

Architect James Stewart Polshek, 80, said he asked to have the statue brought to this site.

He talked to me while deftly sidestepping bricklayers as they finished the building’s plaza for the opening earlier this month. The point was to introduce the tensions of Jewish identity in American history.

Facing Independence Mall, Polshek’s design provides an impeccably proportioned translucent glass backdrop to the statue’s drapery.

Judaism garbed in the raiment of ancient Rome raises the questions Jews have asked throughout their 350 years in America: How do we fit? What sets us apart?

The five-story, $150 million museum is a welcome contrast to the underwhelming parade of institutions on the mall dedicated to America’s independence and Constitution.

(Though Congress has endorsed the “national” status of the museum, it is a private, nonprofit institution that grew from the nearby Mikveh Israel synagogue founded in 1740.)

Polshek’s design is so restrained it almost disappears. The only Jewish iconography is an 8-foot-tall rooftop light sculpture by Ben Rubin that uses LED lights and reflectors to evoke the eternal light that burns within every synagogue.

The slim glass slab that faces the Mall is webbed by a ceramic scrim that lets the passerby see shadowy movement within. Large clear-glass expanses open in the surface like two-story vitrines, where the museum may install curatorial come-ons visible to the swarms headed to the Liberty Bell.

Sensuous Materials

After this project, younger partners are taking charge of Polshek’s firm (and have renamed it Ennead Architects LLP). He brought to bear on the museum his keen eye for proportion and love of sensuous materials.

For the busy Market Street side of the building, he contrasts the building’s polished front with a lower volume clad in softly curved panels of terra cotta, fired to match the city’s prevailing brick.

Though beautiful, the building’s elements seem engaged in a private conversation with one another, when the museum needs to offer a vigorous public invitation.

The lobby opens into a handsome yet intimate 85-foot-high atrium, crisscrossed by beautifully wrought wood-and-glass stairways. The first interior impression is appealingly domestic.

Short films on the airy ground floor tell the touching stories of 18 history-making Jews, such as Golda Meir, who grew up in Milwaukee and became a prime minister of Israel, or pitcher Sandy Koufax, the first Jewish sports hero.

Vitrines display Irving Berlin’s piano, vials Jonas Salk used in his polio research, and costumes Barbra Streisand wore in the movie “Yentl.”

History Embalmed

By contrast, the displays on three floors that cover more than three-and-a-half centuries take history that’s transformative, touching and funny -- and embalm it. The displays are text-heavy and jammed into a maze of stage sets.

The success of Jews and of America often seems indistinguishable, from rags-to-riches immigrant achievement to family life in postwar suburbia.

That’s the point, of course, but sometimes the displays seem to lose track of what makes the Jewish experience unique.

In trying to pin down what’s missing, I thought of the recently restored Eldridge Street Synagogue in Manhattan. Its architecture, a wonderful mashup of Middle Eastern themes, expresses the authentic complexity of Jewish iconography in America.

The synagogue is on the Lower East Side, site of so much Jewish struggle. Here the perpetual American story of immigration and identity is still being told as the neighborhood vibrantly hosts the latest immigration wave -- from Fukien, China.

I hope the National Museum of American Jewish History finds a similarly compelling touchstone.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at