Temple on the Heights versus the Rockefellers

By Ken Goldberg

Visitors to the Western Reserve Historical Society enjoyed the “Unbuilt Cleveland” exhibit some years back, but Cleveland’s suburban institutions also have their own, and fascinating, “unbuilt” histories. A good example is Cleveland Heights’ former Temple on the Heights (B’nai Jeshurun) building, which has graced Mayfield Road since 1926. Now called The Civic, this magnificent structure was nearly constructed–with the very same plans–in East Cleveland! The story, with its Rockefeller connection, was chronicled in local newspapers of the mid-1920s.

It begins in the early 1920s, when the congregation of B’nai Jeshurun decided to sell its imposing Neo-Classical edifice of 1906, which stood at East 55th Street and Scoville Avenue. The prominent Boston architect, Charles Greco, was hired, and a fashionable Byzantine-style plan was approved for a site within the newly developing Heights Jewish community, across Mayfield from the Montefiore Home which had opened in 1921. Work began on the $800,000-to-$1-million structure in April, 1924, with the plan calling for construction on “one of the handsomest temples in the country” to be completed within 18 months. Such was announced at a “dance and frolic” held at Sophie Tucker’s Carlton Terrace Restaurant, according to a Cleveland Heights Press article.

Announced later that month was John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s arrival in town to inspect the widening of Monticello Boulevard and Superior Road, in the vicinity of his family’s Forest Hill estate; the Heights Press mentioned that philanthropic or institutional use for the estate was anticipated. By August 29, the completion of the basement of B’nai Jeshurun (to be one of the most elaborate and complete church structures in the Heights) and a planned synagogue gymnasium were announced and, the following month, articles told of the Jewish orphanage offering to build a new $300,000-$500,000 public school in the Quilliams Road vicinity if the orphanage could build nearby. This plan, and a plan for a Marine Hospital to be built on Taylor Road north of Mayfield, were soon stymied by neighborhood opposition.

In January, 1925, B’nai Jeshurun acquired the house next to its construction site for social and educational purposes, and Dean Bailey of the Cleveland School of Art offered a lecture on the new synagogue’s architecture. The 4/10/25 Jewish Review and Observer announced a cornerstone ceremony for B’nai Jeshurun set for April 26th. Almost all the “iron structure of the activities house is set up and riveted,” the article read.

Yet, merely one week later in the Cleveland Heights Press, the Rockefeller-financed, $60-million residential village of Forest Hill, to be laid out by B.R. Deming, was announced, with the added information that $1.2 million was to be spent, for acquiring land east of Lee Road and all along Mayfield including the B’nai Jeshurun site, per an agreement with the B’nai Jeshurun trustees! Stated was that the congregation was to receive $462,000 in cash and a new site worth $125,000. Construction at the Mayfield site had stopped several days earlier.

The deal was not yet complete, but B’nai Jeshurun trustees were said to be “delighted with the prospect and cooperating to the fullest extent to bring it to pass.” The new site, to extend from the new Coventry Road extension to what was to become Luxor Road, had a 245-feet frontage and a depth of 220 ft., compared to the Mayfield site which was 250 feet wide and 195 feet deep, but Henry Spira, B’nai Jeshurun Building Committee chairman, was quoted as expressing his delight “when the broad-minded, far-reaching purpose of [the Forest Hill plans] was explained by Mr. Deming.”

What was the official rationale for such a prominent, half-built structure to be relocated to a site facing parkland from a site that would be facing new, high-grade residences? Stone and steel, already in place, were to be reused in the new setting, and completion was reset for the 1926 High Holidays.

The article praised “Mr. Rockefeller’s willingness to spend any amount of money to have the architectural setting exactly right because architectural conformity was the only motivating consideration . . .” It further stated the synagogue “will still have all the advantages of the proximity of the new development” but will also be “where the architectural experts believe it belongs in the setting.”

Rabbi Abraham Nowak of B’nai Jeshurun was quoted as saying that the East Cleveland site was preferable because it was near the center of the Jewish community of East Cleveland and the Heights, and also “on the main road to Cleveland where the Van Sweringens or Cleveland Railway Company may build a new rapid transit.” The Forest Hill development, meanwhile, was envisioned in the same article as “a gem set in the heart of suburban Cleveland, finer even than the Euclid Golf [in Cleveland Heights] or Shaker Village developments.”

But, alas, within two weeks, the Rockefeller/B’nai Jeshurun deal fell through. The Superior Road interests held out for more money and, despite many meetings–between these interests, Rockefeller representatives, and Mayor Frank Cain, according to an April 24th Cleveland Heights Press article–the parties could not reach an agreement. Morris Amster of the synagogue ordered masons and iron-workers to resume their work, and the congregation was said to be too anxious to see its facility completed to begin searching for alternate locations.

Once again the paper lauded Rockefeller for his “not undertaking a real estate development from a purely commercial point of view but with the thought of making Forest Hill and its surroundings for a great public or semi-public use… [Rockefeller’s] effort to have the temple transferred was solely for the purpose of perfecting the architectural balance of the development…”

Mentioned also is the irony that the Rockefellers had owned the East Cleveland site until a year earlier! An article appearing in the Jewish Review and Observer of 4/24/25 stated matter-of-factly that the plan for building B’nai Jeshurun in East Cleveland, of which Rockefeller representatives had made overtures about two months earlier, had been favored by the synagogue’s board because Mayfield Road had been “designated for a greater business development.”

The cornerstone ceremony for the Mayfield structure was delayed a month, and eventually apartment houses were constructed on the East Cleveland site. In May and June of 1926, numerous articles appeared dealing with the case whereby zoning for the Jewish orphanage, which by then wished to relocate to Fairmount Boulevard in University Heights/Shaker Heights, was being tested in the federal District Court.

What were the true reasons for the Rockefeller family’s attempts to buy off the B’nai Jeshurun congregation in 1925? Well, during its first 40 years, the Forest Hill residential development was not exactly known as a neighborhood where “all races and creeds” were welcome.