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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Wilshire Boulevard Temple - About this Commission

Congregation B’nai B’rith, founded 1862
Organized by some of the first Jewish settlers in Gold Rush-era Los Angeles, Congregation B’nai B’rith (CBB) honored the religious commitment of its founders and the modern vision of its energetic rabbi when it erected a new sanctuary on Wilshire Boulevard in 1929.  Founded in 1862, the first Jewish congregation in Southern California had outgrown two earlier synagogues located near the historic center of Los Angeles.  Edgar F. Magnin made the creation of a new home for the congregation a priority in 1919, the first year of his appointment as Senior Rabbi, marshaling the resources of pioneer family descendants and Hollywood moguls to realize the goal. In its new location, with its “magnificent” and “precedent shattering” sanctuary, the congregation literally made a new name for itself. Wilshire Boulevard Temple took its place as a monument to those who established the Los Angeles Jewish community and as a ner tamid (“eternal light”) for those who would nurture the community going forward.8 

The roots of Congregation B’nai B’rith extended back to 1854 when thirty men created the Hebrew Benevolent Society (HBS) to secure a cemetery for the small Jewish community and insure that Jewish burial rituals were followed. HBS also offered charitable assistance to people in need – Jews and non-Jews – a tradition continued by its successor organization known today as Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.  Less than a decade later, several of the HBS founders were instrumental in the formal creation of Congregation B’nai B’rith.  Because it was the only Jewish congregation in Los Angeles until the 1890s, was known locally as simply the Jewish Temple. Among its members were many prominent and successful city-makers – Jewish merchants, bankers, real estate developers, wine and fruit barons, utility and transportation entrepreneurs, elected officials, and charity ladies – who helped transform Los Angeles from a Mexican-era pueblo into an American metropolis in the second half of the 19th century.

Thoroughly modern Magnin
In 1915 the congregation hired a recently ordained rabbi to assist its popular and esteemed spiritual leader, Dr. Sigmund Hecht.  The twenty-five-year-old San Francisco native Edgar Magnin quickly made himself indispensable and became Senior Rabbi four years later. He modernized Congregation B’nai B’rith by reviving old rituals and devising new ones, championing a new location on the emerging western edge of the city, and bringing together the established Jewish elite with the Hollywood newcomers. With the instincts of a showman, Magnin needed a physical venue that suited his creative, dramatic speaking style, his desire to reach a wide audience, and his growing reputation as not only a Jewish leader, but an important civic leader as well. He used the new tools of mass media to reach a broader audience, broadcasting his sermons and lessons of Jewish history on a weekly radio hour, and served on several inter-denominational committees to promote religious tolerance. Though it took nearly ten years for his synagogue dream to be realized, Magnin secured both an appropriate setting for his vision of American Judaism as a religion, not an ethnicity, and an architectural landmark for the region forging a new kind of urban identity linked to the growing popularity of the automobile.

Reflecting their vision for their “modern” temple, Magnin and the congregation’s lay leaders chose to build their new synagogue on Wilshire Boulevard, purchasing lots in 1921 and 1922 just as local developer A. W. Ross began to fulfill an ambition to make it the grandest boulevard in the city. Envisioned in the 1890s by capitalist Henry Gaylord Wilshire to be the first thoroughfare in the basin to connect downtown Los Angeles with the beach city of Santa Monica, the boulevard had to wait for mass-produced automobiles to reach its full extension.  Fortunately, Angelenos quickly embraced the car as the primary means of transportation.  In the 1920s, building booms on the boulevard from Westlake (later MacArthur) Park to Western Avenue and from La Brea to Fairfax avenues took advantage of that embrace and catered to the car culture.
Dubbed the "Fifth Avenue of the West," Wilshire Boulevard became the most prestigious address for elite Angelenos, home to ultra-modern department stores like Bullocks Wilshire, glittering Art Deco skyscrapers, the best hotels and nightclubs, and the finest and quirkiest eateries – including the bowler hat-shaped Brown Derby. By 1928, Congregation B’nai B’rith had broken ground on the property bounded by Wilshire, Sixth, Hobart, and Harvard, three blocks east of Western Avenue, positioning itself on the forefront of the city’s growth as a modern metropolis.

Magnin's great sanctuary
Magnin's vision of a great sanctuary dominated the three-building complex designed by architects A. M. Edelman (son of the congregation’s first rabbi), S. Tilden Norton, and David C. Allison and built by contractor Herbert M. Baruch (son of a pioneer Jewish entrepreneur in the city). The massive sanctuary rose up one hundred thirty feet from the street, topped by a Byzantine dome one hundred feet in diameter. Its Wilshire Boulevard facade evoked the Pantheon in Rome while its interior suggested a movie theater. “I wanted the proportions like a theater,” he said, “so I can talk with people, not at them.”  The spacious lobby, carpeted stairways, wide corridors, and numerous entrances to the main floor made filling and emptying the auditorium efficient. Eighteen hundred people could experience the perfect acoustics surrounded by stained glass windows, each “made up of some five or six thousand pieces of glass, leaded together … made by the same methods used by the artists who created the windows in the 13th century cathedrals of Europe.”  The Italian and Belgian marble, carved arches, thirty-foot columns, inlaid mosaics, teakwood doors, and walnut wainscoting – all served as the setting for the massive “Altar” (bimah or pulpit) and Ark (housing the congregation’s Torah scrolls) that filled the sanctuary's north wall. Surrounding the entire room were the paintings that came to be known as the Warner Murals. The pièce de résistance of Magnin’s vision, three lunettes and frieze decorations encapsulated key events, people, and custom of Judaism along with the history of Jews “from Abraham to the discovery of America.”10

Ballin's commission: classical painter and modern filmmaker
Said to have been influenced by a tour of cathedrals in Europe and their imagery and paintings, Magnin also appreciated the techniques of the modern art form – motion pictures – for evoking emotions. The rabbi who would break the medieval custom of banning imagery, especially of the human form, from synagogues, found in muralist Hugo Ballin the best collaborator to bring “warmth and mysticism” back into the surroundings of Jewish worship. Perhaps on the recommendation of congregant Milton Getz, for whom Ballin had painted a series of murals in his Beverly Hills home, it is likely that Magnin commissioned Ballin to create the paintings in 1928 and later that year convinced Harry, Jack, and Albert Warner of Warner Brothers studio to buy and donate the paintings for the new sanctuary. Ballin acknowledged that the subjects of the paintings were selected “through the enthusiastic cooperation of Rabbi Magnin” with the aim of “stimulat[ing] the imagination and … arous[ing] interest and respect in the beholder.” Calling upon his classical training as a painter and his modern experience as a filmmaker, Ballin melded the drama of ancient Judaism with the energy of the movies.11

Magnin emphatically stated “we have broken tradition to bring back tradition,” reflecting at once the strategy, aim and effect of the murals. A contemporary critic noted that in "[f]ollowing his beloved Umbrian precedents, Ballin has endeavored to present his story simply …. Realism and symbolism interpenetrate easily throughout the works.” As he had in his films, Ballin invoked in the paintings numerous techniques of film, including thematic elements in backgrounds, artistic highlights to draw attention to certain figures, and figures in motion.  The murals “unrolled before [worshippers] like a great scroll of Jewish history,” echoing a strip of celluloid film, unfolding like a movie serial. With clarity and confidence, Rabbi Magnin marshaled architectural grandeur and artistic inspiration to create “a sight calculated to freshen interest in their history among a race caught fast in the hurried life of today.” Together, Ballin and Magnin made new traditions in metropolitan Los Angeles.12

Restoration (2013)
Ballin's murals at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple were brilliantly restored by the Aneta Zebala Paintings Conservation company in 2013 as part of the redevelopment of Wilshire Boulevard Temple's historic campus and can be viewed today. To learn more about the murals and their restoration, explore the Wilshire Boulevard Temple's website here.
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