The Campus That Could Have Been
In 1925, Lewis Mumford, the great historian, philosopher and social and literary critic wrote that American synagogues should “echo in architectural treatment the mature and profound conception of the Jewish religion and philosophy.” The first president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, agreed.
In 1927, he proclaimed that the new Yeshiva College campus would represent “the outward, material expression of the spiritual edifice that Torah-true American Israel have resold to erect in their hearts.” Rabbi Dr. Revel, along with New York builder Harry Fischer, set out to build a campus that would “reflect the purpose of the institution.” Eitan Kastner (YC ’08 and past Editor-in-Chief of The Commentator) argued in the journal American Jewish History that Revel and Fischer set out to build a campus that would not only symbolize the strength of Orthodoxy on American shores, but also represent Yeshiva College’s allegiance to Torah and Hokhmah (secular studies as it was then referred). It would be more than a “useful type of building,” said Rabbi Dr. Revel. It would be “a building with a soul, a house worthy of the name Yeshiva College of America.”
The campus that three architects envisioned for Yeshiva College was breathtaking. A central quadrangle was flanked to the south by a subtle arcade, and to the north, a breathtaking domed library stood in the shadow of a tall minaret. In between imposing structures of granite and marble were gardens, fountains, rows of trees and covered walkways. Lecture halls, offices, dormitories and study halls were borrowed from Columbia University’s stoic layout, but the campus wasn’t too much of a carbon copy of New England colleges. It had its own unparalleled style in campus architecture.
The campus plan borrowed from the Moorish Revival architectural vocabulary that was ever popular among Jewish architects in the 1920s. These arabesque elements—arches in the shape of horseshoes, geometric trimmings, bright colors, domes, turrets and minarets—might be an imagined nod to architecture of the Golden Age of Spain. More practically, however, as Jews began to erect major synagogues, they found the Gothic style too Christian and the Greco-Roman style too pagan and adopted a unique oriental approach. The Architecture of Yeshiva College’s new campus would look back to tradition to plan an enduring campus for the future of Orthodox intellectual life.
A series of drawings by architects Charles B. Meyers and Henry Beaumont Herts released to The Commentator by the Yeshiva University archives illustrate how the planners wished to set a tone in the university through architecture. The reception room in the dormitory features arched ceilings supported by round columns, a fireplace, tall doors and grand furnishings. The auditorium features a balcony with three-story windows, and rows of plush seats facing a grand piano. The “students’ congregation,” features fine engraved wood pews and wrought iron banisters. The two-story high school library reading room was flooded with natural light pouring in from huge stain glass windows.
The plan was grand and the financing was in place. Ground was broken in 1927 for Zysman Hall, the first of what President Revel hoped would be a number of impressive buildings. But with the Great Depression died any chance of this glorious campus, and with it, the chance of a unique Jewish architectural aesthetic in a college campus.
The Commentator would like to thank Shulamith Z. Berger, Curator of Special Collections, who helped facilitate the publication of these images.