If you've ever cruised along Wilshire Boulevard between Western and Vermont, you've probably noticed a massive, domed structure at Hobart Avenue, kitty-corner to an indoor golf driving-range. That building is the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, aka the Best Jewish Reform Synagogue Built by Hollywood, according to our 2011 Best of L.A. issue.
You might have also noticed that, these days, the temple is covered in scaffolding — signs the 1929 landmark is in the middle of a multimillion-dollar renovation. The large-scale extended project includes a cleaning and restoration of the Warner Murals, commissioned by none other than Jack, Harry and Albert Warner, otherwise known as the Warner Bros. The artist, Hugo Ballin, would have been a whopping 133 years old today, so what better time to revisit his work than the present?
Located inside the temple's main sanctuary, the Warner Murals are a visual narrative that recounts the history of the Jewish people, from the Book of Genesis to immigration to the United States.
Before landing a job as a production designer and art director on silent films, Hugo Ballin, a native New Yorker, attended the Art Students League of New York. When the motion picture industry moved out west from New Jersey, Ballin followed, relocating to Los Angeles in 1921 in order to continue working on movie sets.
Films became a part not just of Ballin's professional life but his personal and leisure life, too. He married silent film actress Mabel Croft and operated his own production company, while also working for early Hollywood moguls such as Samuel Goldwyn and the Warner brothers.
After talkies hit the big screen, Ballin moved back to figurative painting, specifically murals. He created original artwork at Burbank City Hall, the Los Angeles Times building, the Southern California Edison Company, Griffith Observatory and many other local institutions, including the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
The Warner Murals are the first figurative murals in a Jewish sanctuary, owing to the fact that, before the 20th century, Jews held a literal interpretation of the Second Commandment, a portion of which reads: “You shall not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.” But the Wilshire Boulevard Temple's first rabbi, Edgar F. Magnin, maintained, “The day is over when liberal-minded people are likely to worship images.” He went on to say, “The synagogue, particularly the reform temple, is generally too cold in its treatment. We need more warmth and mysticism.”
The Warner Murals literally surround congregants inside the main sanctuary, and in 1929 and 1930, Rabbi Magnin delivered a series of lectures that provided detailed descriptions of the paintings and insights into the history of the Jewish people.
In June 1929, Ballin wrote, “It was a joy and a privilege to have been asked to contribute to the embellishment of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which resulted in a series of wall paintings known as the Warner Memorial Murals. The richness and abundance of subject matter made the selection of incidents to be depicted difficult. Selections were made through the enthusiastic cooperation of Rabbi Magnin. The subjects have been treated as an interwoven design of flowing compositions not definitely confined. The individuals depicted have no pictorial prototype. It therefore was necessary to create composite characteristics which would be convincing. The purpose of mural embellishment is to stimulate the imagination and to arouse interest and respect in the beholder. If I have succeeded in doing so I would feel deeply gratified.”
Nowadays, you can't go into the Wilshire Boulevard's main sanctuary without a contractor's pass or a hard hat. But while Ballin's work is covered and awaiting expert restoration, congregants and art fans alike can expect to eventually see a newly refurbished temple, complete with intricate, Art Deco murals that will once again be blessed with their original luminescence.