14 May 2013

Gustave Eiffel's Paris synagogue

Synagogue Tournelles is a Jewish house of worship built in the heart of Paris’ important Marais district (in the 4th arrond­ise­ment).

main synagogue entrance in Rue de Tournelles
architect: Marcellin Emmanuel Var­collier

In 1872 the building was designed to seat 1400 people, with the men on the ground floor and two higher storeys for women. The barrel vault­ed building was designed by architect Marcellin Emmanuel Var­collier (1829-95) who was well known in the area because of his other architectural commissions. [Varcollier’s best known works came later. The town hall for the 18th arrondisement was started in 1888 and his Palace of Metallurgy and Mines was an amazing part of the 1900 World Exposition in Paris]. Varcollier seemed to admire the Romanesque style of architecture.

But then something remarkable happened. Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) had been appointed as the principal engineer of the Compagnie Belge way back in 1857. Apparently his work had gained the attention of several important people who were impressed, especially once they saw the metalwork of the Bordeaux bridge. Further promotion within the company followed, but in 1865 Eiffel felt he had to resign and set up as an independent consulting engineer.

exposed ironwork in the nave
engineer Gustave Eiffel

Eiffel designed the engineering structure of Saint-Joseph church Paris in 1863 and the glass roof of the Palais Galliera/now Musée de la Mode a decade later. His fame was spreading. Varcollier invited Eif­fel to prepare designs for exposed ironwork in the splendid Synagogue Tournelles nave which was to be 21 meters wide. Eiffel also took the role of protecting the Holy Ark by really lovely wrought iron gates that have decorative value but no real security role.

The street façade in rue des Tournelles, highlighted by a rose window of stained glass, might have come from a church. But one element made it clear that the building was Jewish. The iconic Tablets of the Law were sculpted, inscribed in Hebrew letters and placed high above the front facade. 

In the centre, two heraldic shields of Paris indicated that synagogue was successfully constructed, in part because of the financial contribution by the city. Paris' City Council had given its approval because the Jewish population of Paris was rising and the old synagogues were starting to look inadequate.

finely wrought iron gates in front of the ark

When this lovely synagogue was opened with great festivities in 1876, it was intended to suit the practices of Ashkenazi Jews and was used by congregants from Alsace and Lorraine. Then it was popular with those who emigrated from Poland and the Russia lands.

But the Holocaust exterminated part of the Ashkenazi community and by 1946 the congregation was much reduc­ed. By the 1950s, the synagogue was being used by Sephardi Jews instead. I know what difference that would make to the liturgy and the music, but I wonder if it would make any difference to the architecture.

Synagogue Tournelles has been attacked by neo-Nazi thugs but has never been destroyed. Fortunat­e­ly the synagogue was classified as a Historic Monument in 1987.


In 1875 the Royal Portuguese Railway Company set up a competition for a bridge to carry the Lisbon-Porto railway across the river fast flowing Douro river. The Maria Pia bridge, which Joe and I saw in Porto last year, was built in 1877 by Gustave Eiffel! Built of wrought iron, its two-hinged crescent arch used to carry the railway to Lisbon for 350 metres across the River Douro at a height of 60 metres over the water. When it was inaugurated in 1877, it was the longest single-arch span in the world.

Now consider the immaculate timing. Did the Royal Portuguese Railway Company travel to Paris to see Synagogue Tournelles - between the time the synagogue plans were first considered in 1872 and the time the synagogue was inaugurated in 1876? In any case the success of Eiffel's Ponte Maria Pia in 1877 was more likely than Eiffel's synagogue to have inspired later engineering design (especially over inhospitable river gorges) in France, Spain and elsewhere.

Eiffel, Maria Pia Bridge in Porto


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Iron (and other metal) work was much featured in the 19th century, both exterior and interior. Sometimes it highlighted its structural function, as in the works of Eiffel, and sometimes it masqueraded as decorative elements, as in the famous corn fence (and other lacy ironwork) in New Orleans.

I am glad that this synagogue has achieved landmark status--plus it looks beautifully preserved in your photos. Too many temples (churches too, for that matter) in America at least have fallen victim to urban blight, and left to deteriorate after their fashionable congregations have abandoned them--no wars or vandals required!
--Road to Parnassus

Andrew said...

I did not know Eiffel built more than just a tall tower, but of course he would have. I enjoyed re-reading the post about Marais.

Mandy Southgate said...

How interesting. I also didn't really appreciate that Eiffel did so much more than the tower although I remember from my visit to NYC that he built the iron skeleton that is situated inside the Statue of Liberty.

I wonder about the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenzi. In South Africa, or in Jo'burg at least, both considered themselves Orthodox and so Sephardim were happy to go to Orthodox synagogues because they were such a minority and there was only one Sephardi shul situated on the other side of town. They were distinguished from the Reform congregations and the Hassidim. I must ask my mum is she has even been to a dedicated Sephardi service and whether she remembers enough to distinguish it from an Ashkenazi service.

Hels said...


Because Maria Pia Bridge and the Eiffel Tower dominated theIr landscapes so comprehensively, people tend to think of the structural function only as exteriors.

Yet you are right... interiors are also important. We moderns just have to work a bit harder on interiors, relying on whatever written records and designs survive, rather than on our eyes. Interior iron work is usually hidden.

Hels said...


Eiffel was a VERY busy bloke. He designed the engineering in dozens and dozens of bridges, viaducts, railway structures and buildings. His Paris tower was just the _peak_ of his successful career, bigger and more dramatic than his other designs, but not more important.

I wonder what might have happened to his reputation, had the Eiffel Tower (built in 1889) been pulled down in 1909 as had been planned from the beginning. Would we know the name Eiiffel today, had that happened?

Hels said...


The Statue of Liberty reference is quite right! Look what we learn from blogs :)

The differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues are easy to detect - the pews are laid out in a different pattern, the music is totally different, the covers around the Torah scrolls are different and the service is conducted marginally differently. But the synagogue structure itself works equally well, whether the community is Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Reform or anything else.

Mandy Southgate said...

I'd have to get my mum to take me to some services here in London or Spain perhaps so that she can point out the differences!

Hels said...


have a look at the Aben Danan Synagogue in Fez or at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. These synagogues had the true Sephardi layout from the very beginning; they were not Ashkenazi synagogues adapted for a later community.

Go on a mother-daughter bonding trip :) I wish I could... alas my mother's travelling days are pretty much over.