Image by Amy Tierney
An icon for the Jewish community gets a much-needed facelift

Story by Dan Crane, photos by Amy Tierney

Known as the “Temple of the Stars,” the recently renovated Wilshire Temple is home to Los Angeles’ oldest congregation, and is a magnificent example of how Hollywood one-upmanship led to the creation of one of LA’s most awe-inspiring buildings. de LaB recently took a tour of the 1929 building, designed by Abram M. Edelman, and discovered its fascinating history.

Producer, journalist and author Tom Teicholz (who wrote a book chronicling the history of the temple) described how the original moguls of Hollywood tried to outdo each other with their generous donations to the construction of the temple. Universal founder Carl Laemmle donated the incredible 13-feet tall chandeliers (built to resemble havdalah spice boxes), Louis B. Mayer of MGM donated the east and west stained glass windows, and the Warner brothers donated the services of their talented art department head, Hugo Ballin, to paint the murals, which span the sanctuary and depict stages of Jewish history up to 1929. (Ballin is also well known for his murals at the Griffith Observatory). As Ballin expert Nan Goodman pointed out, because the murals were completed in 1929, the two most important events in 20th Century Jewish history, namely the Holocaust and the foundation of the state of Israel, are obviously not included.

Image by Amy Tierney

Producer Irving Thalberg donated the oculus at the top of the sanctuary, ringed by the opening words of the Jewish daily prayer known as the Sh’ma. “He wanted his gift to be above the gifts of all the other moguls,” explained Teicholz. “The dark sardonic twist is that shortly thereafter, Thalberg died very young—so he got his wish of looking down at all the other moguls, but not in the way he thought he would.”

Since its construction, the temple had gradually fallen into disrepair. Beginning in 2001 with a planning grant from the Getty Foundation, the congregation eventually raised enough money to restore the temple to its former splendor. The restoration was completed a year ago, and includes an expanded school campus. Behind the synagogue, development has begun on a building that will house legal, dental and eye exams, a food pantry and social services for the community, regardless of affiliation.

The 100-foot-wide Byzantine dome (which references the Pantheon in Rome) soars a dizzying 140 feet above the pews, and now glows in a tranquil bath of blue light thanks to the renovation led by architect Brenda Levin. In addition to seismic upgrading of the building, Levin’s firm installed new lighting, repaired extensive water damage in the dome, restored the Hugo Ballin murals, and installed a new air conditioning system. Previously, the synagogue had been chilled by a giant fan blowing over huge blocks of ice in the basement—a cooling system typical of large LA theaters, including The Wiltern, in the early 20th century.

Memorial wall by artist Lita Albuquerque

As Levin was quick to point out, everything about the building is theatrical—from the layered and multi-colored paint used on the interior walls, to the ornate figurative Ballin murals (atypical in a Jewish house of worship since iconography is banned by the second of the Ten Commandments), to the 4,000+ pipe Kimball organ, to the fact that there is no center aisle. “You’re all sitting in the center section,” noted Levin. “Because in a movie theater, the best seats are in the middle!”

During our tour, just as Levin was describing how the chandeliers were on winches so that their bulbs could be changed, a smaller, newly installed fixture fell and remained dangling from the ceiling. This prompted one of the tour group members to ask, “I don’t know if you noticed when you were talking about the lighting, but that light fell down. So during the renovation I was just wondering was there any kind of activity, paranormal or otherwise?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Levin laughed. “No.”

See more photos of the tour here.

Dan Crane is a journalist, author, comedian, host, musician, and competitive air-guitarist (retired). He is the author of “To Air is Human: One Man’s Quest to Become the World’s Greatest Air Guitarist”(Riverhead Books, 2006), and the co-star of the award-winning documentary, Air Guitar Nation.

Amy Tierney is a portrait and lifestyle photographer whose work has appeared in Elle, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, LA Times and many others. She also works with non-profits and NGOs to document their missions. Her work can be found at Thrive Images.  



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This is the tenth event in our Making LA series, which is made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Making LA consists of ten free programs hosted throughout the city between fall 2013 and fall 2014 that focus on designers and architects working closely with communities and civic leaders to improve Los Angeles. The series will culminate in the Making LA conference in fall 2014, a one-day event where creative leaders from across Los Angeles will share best practices and investigate new ways to make their burgeoning civic, architectural or design projects a reality. Want to sponsor an upcoming event? Learn more.