This Day in Jewish History / Architect Erich Mendelsohn Is Born

Designed department stores in Germany for Schocken chain, notable buildings in Europe, Israel and U.S.

March 21, 1887, is the birthdate of Erich Mendelsohn, the German-Jewish architect who created some of the 20th century’s most graceful modernist masterpieces.

Erich Mendelsohn was born in Allenstein, a town in East Prussia (today, Olstzyn, Poland), to David Mendelsohn, a shopkeeper, and the former Emma Esther Jaruslawky, a hatmaker. After going to school in his hometown and in Berlin, Mendelsohn studied at several universities, receiving his architecture degree from the University of Munich in 1912.

After service in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, Mendelsohn opened an office in Berlin. His first major building may be his most well-known, the Einstein Tower, in Potsdam, Berlin. Designed in an extravagant Expressionist style, originally intended to house laboratories for research related to Einstein’s theory of relativity, today the building is home to a museum and a solar observatory.

In 1915, he married cellist and socialite Louise Maes, for whom he built a “dream house” outside Berlin when trying to win back her affections after she had an extramarital affair.

Most of Mendelsohn’s extant work, which can be found not only in Germany but also in Britain, Israel and the United States – the other countries he called home – is clean and sleek, in the International style. (He also built a textile factory in the Soviet Union.)

In 1924, he and Mies van der Rohe were among the founders of the progressive architectural collective Der Ring. In Germany, he designed emporiums in Chemnitz, Nuremberg and Stuttgart for the Schocken department-store chain. Like company head Salman Schocken, later the publisher of this newspaper, Mendelsohn left Germany in 1933, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. He was expelled from the German architects’ union, and the state expropriated all his property.

After two active years in Britain, where he and Serge Chermayeff designed the stunning Modernist De La Warr Pavilion, a cultural center in Bexhill, Mendelsohn moved to pre-state Palestine. Between 1935 to 1941, he designed several buildings at the new Weizmann Institute, including the villa of Chaim Weizmann; hospitals in Haifa (what is now Rambam) and Jerusalem (Hadassah, Mt. Scopus), as well as Jerusalem’s Schocken Library.

Mendelsohn’s last years were spent in San Francisco. He taught architecture at Berkeley, built synagogues and Jewish community centers in a number of Midwestern cities and in 1943 worked with the U.S. military on the “German Village,” at the Dugway Proving Ground, in Utah. The “village” was a full-scale model of a working-class housing development in Berlin on which the army tested incendiary bombs to be used to create a “firestorm” during a planned all-out assault on the German capital. The structures, dedicated reproductions of real residential buildings, were accurate down to the furnishings, toys and even contents of closets.

Erich Mendelsohn died on September 15, 1953, in San Francisco.

Roland Halbe
Courtesy of the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research