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This weblog chronicles the building of an 85%-scale replica of the 18th-century Gwozdziec Synagogue roof and part of its supporting walls. The synagogue was destroyed in WWII. The replica was built in Sanok, Poland, and installed in Warsaw at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Note to readers

The bulk of the Gwozdziec builders are scattering far and wide, most back to their lives and families, some to further travels and a few will move right on to the first painting workshop in Rzeszow.  So the news of the synagogue timber frame build is over, or at least on long hiatus until the next phase later this year.

But there are a few untold stories yet to find their way up on the blog, along with some feature items that have been patiently waiting in line.

So, subject to reader interest and Guild management approval, I would like to carry on for a few more days. This note is coming to you from Toronto Aiport, two flights into a three flight trip from Rzeszow to Philadelphia, and the first spot I’ve found a signal on which to upload to the blog.

This will be it for today, but, subject to jet lag and family plans, look for more synagogue stories over the weekend. And if any of the returning or traveling team members would like to use their new free time to write something and send it this way, that would be much appreciated.

Time to get on the plane. Talk with you soon.


Winding down: timber frame stage almost complete

When last we checked in on progress at the Skansen, the timber frame proper was complete and the cupola was going in, with ribs in place everywhere (but still in process on the Zodiac). And the boarding was done for the cove at the bottom and for the main (trapezoidal) sections of the dome, with the cladding of the triangular pendentives just starting.  The completed lantern sits off to the side, wrapped and ready for transport.

While  cupola building continued, the process of frame dismantling began, with smaller and non-essential pieces coming off and being stacked and stickered in bundles for shipping to the museum in Warsaw later this summer.  As things stand the ongoing schedule, as far as it is established, looks like this: The frame will be bundled and stored under tent cover at the Skansen until it can be brought into the museum building in Warsaw by our crew  in August or September of this year. The museum is scheduled to open in March or April of 2013 and the synagogue frame and cupola would presumably be installed in its gallery sometime during 2012.

As the timber frame project winds down for the moment, the cupola painting project gears up, with three painting workshops scheduled for this summer in Rzeszow, Krakow, and Wroclaw, and five painting sessions in 2012.  Given the complexity of the art work, the mysteries of traditional painting materials and technique, the vast area to cover (almost 1500 square feet) and the complex geometry involved,  it’s fair to say that the painting project is as daunting an undertaking as the timber framing, if not more so. The Timber Framers Guild and the Gwozdziec framing crew wish the Handshouse team all the best as they embark on the second major phase of the project.

Meanwhile back at the Skansen, having reached the top of our arc, with all the attendant drive, expectation and many long days of unrelenting hard work suddenly behind us, the  drop in pressure and  emotional temperature is a bit disorienting. The work continues, mostly cleanup and packing now.  We are pleased with our success and everyone  is looking forward to going home or moving on to the next stage of their travels.  But of the  end of this adventure, the breaking up of our village and disbursement of the tribe, little is said.

*     *     *

Taking up the building story where we left off…

Pendentives in place

Layout for fastening

Dome from the outside

Zodiac ribs in place

Sheathing going in

and almost complete.

*     *     *

Marian Zub and Robert Supel with Marian’s carving of a panel from the bimah.

Why we wear steel toed shoes

American-Japanese-Danish brain trust works on permanent record of hip rafter developed drawing

Long day at the end of a long project

*     *     *

Lantern ready for travel

Crane takes over the last stage of frame dismantling

Bob and Jordan build bundles for shipping

Log walls coming down.

Marian’s two carvings

Visit from three project principals

Midway through Tuesday’s rain we were visited by three prime movers in the Gwozdziec Re!konstrukcja Project.

Scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett was first in the academic community and the museum hierarchy to understand the vaue of the synagogue reconstruction project and see it as a perfect fit in the permanent exhibition of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Her advocacy, together with Rick and Laura, brought along . . .

Museum Associate Director Robert Supel, the man who makes things happen on the ground in Warsaw.

The third member of the party was Irene Pletka of the New York-based Kronhill Pletka Foundation, whose donation funds our project. Barbara was also accompanied on her trip to Sanok by her husband, the distinguished artist Max Gimblett.

Earlier in the day, we held a celebration recognizing the extraordinary service of some of our own. Here coordinator Kelley Sullivan is given a forest axe and Guild Project Manager Alicia Spence  presented with an iconic mug.

Our guests inspect the Zodiac ribs being installed. Left to right:  Max Gimblett, Irene Pletka and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Giimblett., with Robert Supel just visible through the staging at the extreme right.

A picture of Robert taken earlier which does him justice

Barbara and Robert drive pegs into the first assembled roof truss

Laura and Irene follow suit

The group assembles on and in front of the frame and the truss is rigged to rise

and does

With the truss in the foreground (and the rain pouring down), we celebrate a milestone in the synagogue project

Rick and Laura present ceremonial hornbeam, locust and oak pegs

to our three dignitaries.

Thoughts from Polish student Anna Kraus

Student Anna Kraus is affiliated with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and is a part of the third student group.  She writes:

I am Polish and live in Warsaw. Last year I graduated history. Since May 2010 I have been cooperating with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I was the news editor of the Virtual Shtetl portal dedicated to the Jewish heritage and today’s life in Central  Eastern Europe. I am involved in few educational projects for the Museum. I conduct workshops for Polish and Israeli teenagers and I give tours round Jewish memory sites in Warsaw.

*     *     *

My life in Sanok is simple. The breakfast is at 6.30. Usually it is hard to wake up. People drink coffee and tea with milk discussing the parties of last night…

Was it good? Did you meet some local people? It was weird. It was awesome.

At 7.30 I take my backpack and I start my journey. The way is the same every day. I pass the petrol station, the big shopping mall and a few small houses. If there is no rain, I meet sleepy walkers with their sleepy dogs. I like walking near the river San. In the morning there is nobody near the river, but during the afternoon the bank is filled with young people having rendezvous.

It hard to imagine that in 1939-1941 this small shallow river was the border between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union which had conquered and divided Poland. The slow flow of the river always reminds me of the painful history of Sanok whose inhabitants were persecuted by totalitarian regimes.

There is only one bridge which crosses the river. It rather shaky and it has a wooden pavement for pedestrians. Every time I walk there in my heavy boots I make a terrible noise.

I work in the Skansen which is an open-air museum dedicated to the rural culture of southern Poland. The  wooden huts are hidden amongst the trees together with stately Catholic and Orthodox churches. They were taken from different villages in order to show the ethnic diversity of the region inhabited once by highlanders who called themselves Boykos, Lemkos or Pogórzans. Near the main gate there is a replica of a small Polish-Jewish town typical of the region. Similar towns still exist, but their pre-war atmosphere perished together with the Jews.

I am here on behalf of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews which started the project together with the Handshouse Studio. I work with students who have come from Poland and the US to construct the synagogue’s roof under the guidance of experienced builders from the international Timber Framers Guild.

We start our work with a short briefing at 8:00. Kelley checks the attendance list. People change their shoes and put on suntan cream. Then, the crew discusses the tasks which have already been done and the plans for the next day. When new tasks are set, Rick Brown gives his Indiana Jones hat to one person who is going to read a poem. The poetry time is one of the best moments of a day. It a time for the muse and a little meditation. It is like morning prayer which gives power for hard work.

We saw, hew and plane. There are few stations and every crew has its own tasks to do. We are very curious about the final effect. We construct the roof without using any modern machines. We work as 18th century timber framers and we enjoy it despite the blisters and scratches. Somebody sings, somebody tells jokes. Dan, the camera man, moves secretly and films us. Not only the breathtaking synagogue roof but also our blistered hands and sweaty faces will be perpetuated. We will not be anonymous as the old carpenters. Commemorating their work we learn history and we become a significant part of it.

Do we realize what is really happening here?

Eating sandwiches and Greek salad for lunch, we discuss if it is hard to hew or how any boards still need planning.  We concentrate on simple activities. It is our way of making history. But the big idea will become clear when we finish the construction and see the tall peaked roof and its inner cupola. I will be able to recognize beams and boards on which I worked. Then I will look at my tool marks, the signs of my work, my soreness, my sacrifice, my contribution.

I am a part of this building and it is a part of me. It is my opus, our opus.

Winding up

Our goals have been adapted to meet  the limitations of  time on the ground in Sanok and weather complications. Thursday is the final work day for the full TFG crew. The bulk of the students headed out Wednesday morning to Warsaw where they will spend a couple of days before returning home.

Tuesday was our first real rainy day, with steady light precipitation punctuated by periodic downpours. We had to abandon our plan to raise at least a couple of roof trusses since the kiln-dried cupola boards were in process of being installed. The frame is tented against the rain and the cover cannot come off until the dried stock is safely packed away again.  As usual, we tell the story of the last couple of days in pictures…

Roof truss ready for raising (before the rains came).

Tented frame, ribs going in

Just like in Max’s room, a forest grew…

…and grew

Proud hip author with end cuts

Daughter Emma teaches father Tom to hew

Tuesday night after work, pizza at the Sosenki, and an enthusiastic impromptu soccer game.  Sorry for the blurry photo, but it actually represents the action fairly well, with some thirty or so players on the field at any one time.  Ask Gerry about the end run on goal around the outside of the octagon. Or Mikkel about his rugby move.

Planking the Dome

Pendentives are next

And here are the boards being cut to the pendentive template.

Main roof frame and then the cupola: cove, zodiac, lantern

Most of our departments have completed their tasks and are folding their personnel into the ongoing main effort. Pitsawing is all done and the trestle stands empty. It will remain here when we go, a gift to the Skansen.  Likewise the last timber on our list has been hewn, although you can still hear the music of a broad axe or two.  Seems that the habit of hewing, once acquired, is hard to break. And prudence dictates that we have a few spare timbers on hand against the possibility of breakage during shipping or assembly. So we accommodate  the residual hewing jones, and let our people down easy. The main roof frame is complete and two of the six trusses (all that will be installed in this first partial raising) stand ready to go up. And the box frame is done apart from the hip rafters.

So the focus of attention is now on the cupola. The lowest stage — the Cove — is framed and sheathed and the ribs and hips (or are they really valleys?)  for the octagonal dome are being installed.  Once they are in, boarding can begin. Then it’s on to the Zodiac stage (another four sided cove), so called because its surfaces were painted with the symbols of the twelve astrological signs. And finally the cupola is capped by the Lantern, which has been both framed and sheathed over the last several days,  and is assembled, ready to fly in during  raising on Tuesday.

The installation of the cupola makes abundantly clear the we are dealing with two separate structures, one nested within the other.  And this close dovetailing can been seen both on the geometrical and the spiritual planes.  From above and outside, the frame is apparent and ascendant; from below and inside, the cupola dominates. Indeed from the street, the synagogue is in disguise, assuming the shape and style of the workaday wooden Polish streetscape, as a kind of masquerade. But open the door and you enter a different world, a complex curved polychrome tent of wood.

The experience is compelling as seen in glimpses through old paintings and photos, and via the virtual synagogue evolving in our Cad drawings.  The effect of the full size structure is impossible to gauge, save as we watch it slowly morph into being here at the Skansen. At the moment it seems impossible to apprehend either with eye or camera, a dense pack of timber, workmen and women, tools, staging and rigging gear.

Effective photography being near impossible at the moment, frame drawings and historic documents should do a better job of making the point.

View of the Synagogue from the west

The timber frame of the reconstructed Gwozdziec Synagogue roof as seen from above. The sheathing of the cupola has been omitted for clarity.

Here is the ceiling as seen from below. The cupola ribs are highlighted behind the sheathing boards.

One more element in the mix, an historical one. It is believed that the original, Seventeenth Century sanctuary had a simple barrel vault roof as shown in the drawing below. It was several generations later that the building was remodeled in the latest fashion resulting in the compound cupola we know.

One of the historic Breier drawings. You can see what we take to be the curve of the original ceiling vault cut into the lower brace on the left and then carried on as a light dashed line on the upper brace. The full curve of the supposed original ceiling profile is shown on the right as the dark red dashed line.

Finally here is a section through the reconstruction of the remodeled roof showing the cupola nestled into the roof frame and filling the interior space. Now visualize the extraordinary polychrome painted ceiling and walls and you will understand the breath of the transformation from mundane secular exterior to the transcendent sacred interior space.

*     *     *

A photographic account of weekend progress:

A couple of timber lifts.

And again:

Phil learns the pleasures of the Millers Falls Boring Machine

As does Emma’s Dad Tom, just in from Boston

Mitre joint on a flying plate corner, apart…

…Coming together…

…And home.

Mark and Mark work on the interlaced cupola support structure

Miah dovetails dessert

Leon puts finishing touches on the interior of the Lantern

Dome ribs going in

To be continued…

Poetry readings

Recent wearings of the poetry hat:

The Sound of the Sun, read by Rob Duarte (with apologies for the photo  as we were unable to get a shot in the moment. But Rob can wax poetic in any hat. ).

Short verses read by Mez Welch and Rick Brown

To Be of Use, read by Ed Levin

*     *     *

Rob Duarte

The Sound of the Sun

It makes one all right, though you hadn’t thought of it,
A sound like the sound of the sky on fire, like Armageddon,
Whistling and crackling, the explosions of sunlight booming
As the huge mass of gas rages into the emptiness around it.
It isn’t a sound you are often aware of, though the light speeds
To us in seconds, each dawn leaping easily across a chasm
Of space that swallows the sound of that sphere, but
If you listen closely some morning, when the sun swells
Over the horizon and the world is still and still asleep,
You might hear it, a faint noise so far inside your mind
That it must come from somewhere, from light rushing to darkness,
Energy burning towards entropy, towards a peaceful solution,
Burning brilliantly, spontaneously, in the middle of nowhere,
And you, too, must make a sound that is somewhat like it,
Though that, of course, you have no way of hearing at all.

—George Bradley

Mez Welch

Carved on the back of a lute:

I was alive in the forest,

I was cut by the cruel axe

In Life I was silent

In death I sweetly sing.


*     *     *

Rick Brown

Another anonymous saying:

A man must be a little crazy lest he not cut the rope and be free.

*     *     *

To be of use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were meant to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

—Marge Piercy