In 2005, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia was poised to begin construction on a design they commissioned from Polshek Partnership. It was to be an expansion to the 8,000-square-foot space they had called home for three decades. Then one of their board members learned that a site at the intersection of Market and 5th streets, facing directly onto Independence Mall, had suddenly become available.
The highly visible location was tempting to the board, with its dream of turning their museum into a true national destination worthy of its name. Museum President Michael Rosenzweig said, “We had long been known as the National Museum of Jewish History, but the truth was it was not well known outside of Philadelphia.”
The symbolism of Independence Mall also dovetailed perfectly with the institution’s raison d’être. “The central story the museum tells is the story of freedom, a story of what American Jews were able to achieve given the blessings of freedom,” Rosenzweig said. The temptation of the site was too strong: The museum board asked Polshek to scrap his expansion plan and design an entirely new museum.
Now nearly complete, the museum is scheduled to open officially in mid-November. The minimalist design from Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects) comprises a terracotta box that slides into a slightly larger glass box, the two together cantilevered over a black granite base. A pattern of woven lines covering the glass facade gives it a veil-like quality, the pattern loosening only in two locations to allow more light and afford the museum opportunities to install informational screens. The terracotta adds warmth to the otherwise stark museum, tying it together with its historic neighbors while simultaneously protecting the museum’s fragile artifacts from daylight.
Inside, the museum centers on an atrium crisscrossed by bridges and stairs with glass treads, which extend from the top of the museum’s five stories down to a lower level that houses an educational center and theater. The open design, in which people are visible to each other across different levels, is a Polshek signature. “People love watching other people use spaces, as I know from doing Carnegie Hall,” James Polshek said.
The design team liked the idea of keeping an “eternal light” burning outside the museum, in a nod to synagogue tradition. But the money and energy that would be required to keep a ten-foot-tall flame burning were prohibitive. So Polshek sought an alternate from Ben Rubin, a media artist whose work he knew and admired from various famous commissions, including, most recently, the lobby of the New York Times building.
Rubin often incorporates text into his artworks, and was inspired by the design of the Talmud, the tome of Jewish law. “But this is a tricky place, politically, to introduce literal text because it’s so public,” Rubin said. So he pared down the blocks of text on each of the Talmud’s roughly thousand pages into blank white-and-gray rectangles. The abstracted pages cycle through a series of seven LED screens on an upper corner of the museum, appearing in succession on each screen briefly before moving to the next. The effect is a flickering cloud of light. Like the rest of the museum, it aims to be simple in appearance and heavy with meaning.