Allen Moore: Architect

Photograph by Michael Grinley

"It feels good,” says Allen Moore as he enters the Yiddish Book Center, the building he designed more than twenty years before. “We should all age so beautifully.”

At the age of eighty, Moore himself remains fit, active, and eager to discuss the architectural vision that informed the design he dreamed up for the Yiddish Book Center.

The Center had occupied a succession of spaces since its founding in 1980, including a factory loft, a red-brick schoolhouse, a spice warehouse, a roller rink, a nineteenth-century silk mill, and a defunct shopping mall. In 1991 the organization received word that it would have to vacate the borrowed schoolhouse that served as its headquarters. “At first we saw it as a calamity,” explains Center President Aaron Lansky. “Five minutes later we realized it was an opportunity: a chance to build a home of our own.” Lansky worked with board chair Myra Fein to secure a ten-acre site in a former apple orchard on the edge of Hampshire College’s campus in Amherst, Massachusetts. Then they set out to find an architect.

The search took more than a year. Lansky and Fein interviewed twenty architects, but none seemed to understand quite what was needed. Then board member Hillel Levine introduced them to Allen Moore. At first Moore seemed an unlikely choice: he wasn’t Jewish and he knew next to nothing about Yiddish. “At our first meeting, Allen used an unusual vocabulary,” Lansky recalls. “He described his architectural vision with words like honesty, courtesy, and respect. And he made clear that he wasn’t afraid to learn.”

After visiting a house Moore had recently completed on Martha’s Vineyard, Lansky and Fein knew they had found their architect, and Moore headed straight to the Harvard Library to research Jewish architecture of Eastern Europe. He was particularly intrigued by the vernacular roof lines of the venerable wooden synagogues of Russia and Poland, almost all of which were destroyed in the Holocaust. After a weekend-long consultation with staff and board members and outside advisers, Moore returned home to Newburyport, Massachusetts, sequestered himself for three days and nights in his studio, and emerged with a schematic plan that remained essentially unchanged over the ensuing four years of architectural drawing, fundraising, and construction.

Three thousand people attended the Khanukes habayis, the housewarming party for the structure dedicated as the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building in June of 1997. “Something about it just feels right!” visitors agreed, marveling at Moore’s skill in balancing Jewish themes with New England sensibility. “It needed to recall the shtetl [the iconic Jewish town of Eastern Europe],” Moore says, “but not in a Disneyland-like way.”

There was little risk of that. With classrooms, exhibit space, a small theater, a reading library, a bookstore, offices, and a central book repository, the building is bright, airy, and forward-looking—a singular style that Lansky describes as 
“heymish modern.”

A decade later, as the Center’s programs had continued to grow, its beautiful new building “was bursting at the seams,” according to Lansky. So he called on Moore to design an addition. At first Moore demurred: he prided himself on drawing plans by hand (he believed it lent greater fluidity to architectural design), and by then the construction industry had moved on to CAD, or computer-aided design, a process in which Moore had neither interest nor expertise.

Lansky was not ready to take no for an answer. “Who else could double the size of the building yet maintain its spirit and aesthetic?” he asked. Eventually the two reached a compromise: Moore would provide a conceptual design for the addition and leave it to a commercial firm, working for the contractor, to draft the details. Moore would represent the Center’s interests as architectural consultant.

Board member Larry Kaplen arranged a leadership gift of $2 million from the Kaplen Foundation, and the planned addition was designated the Kaplen Family Building. Moore’s conceptual design was characteristically inspired. Tucked behind the 
original building, the new structure would be barely 
visible from the street—but like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, it would appear bigger inside than out. Its 22,000 square feet would include the 350-seat Kligerman-Greenspun Performance Hall, the Klarman Student Center, and the Brechner Gallery. But most important, it would house the Lief D. Rosenblatt Library—a state-of-the-art, fireproof facility that would provide long-term, climate-controlled storage for the Center’s core book collection.

The Center hired Kelleher Construction, a highly respected ninety-year-old firm, to erect the building; Kelleher in turn hired Dana Weeder of Winter Street Architects to flesh out Moore’s vision and translate it into CAD. Moore surprised no one by remaining an active member of the team.

“One Saturday morning at seven the phone rang,” Lansky recalls. “It was Allen Moore.

“‘I hope it’s not too early,’ he said. ‘I woke up at three in the morning with a new idea for the trusses in the performance hall. I got out of bed and 
sat down at my drafting table. I couldn’t wait to let you know.’

“‘Tell me, Allen,’ I said, rubbing the sleep from my eyes, ‘what happens when architects don’t wake up at three in the morning?’

“‘Just look around!’ he replied.”

Together, the Weinberg and Kaplen buildings stand as what one magazine described as “the most beautiful home Yiddish has ever known.” As he accompanies a reporter on a recent visit, Moore talks about the research and planning that went into his design. From the outside, the complex really does look like a shtetl: a cluster of modest wood structures with shingled, stacked gable roofs and horizontal planked red cedar siding. But inside it’s a single space, built of Douglas fir, ash, Honduran mahogany, and, in Moore’s parlance, “other honest materials.” The Eastern European design looks right at home in a New England apple orchard. “We did not bulldoze the site,” Moore explains. “We fit the building into the land.”

In fact, the topography of the site had a significant influence on the design. The ten-acre parcel had a west-to-east grade that allowed Moore to hide the massive volume of the Center’s high-ceilinged book repository by placing it in the back of the building. He designed the building’s approach to convey a sense of drama and anticipation: to reach the front doors, visitors cross what he describes as “a noisy Billy Goats Gruff bridge.” Although the image comes from Norwegian folklore, it carries with it an authentic Jewish resonance: goats were a common presence outside of shtetl homes, and they figure prominently in Yiddish literature—so much so that the Center adopted a kleyn vays tsigele—a little white goat—for its logo.

After crossing the bridge, visitors pass through a dimly lit entryway and emerge into the light-filled Great Hall, its peaked ceiling topped by a cupola. From there one has an unimpeded view of the central book repository: row upon row of shelves filled with tens of thousands of volumes. “The Great Hall provides a center of gravity,” Moore explains. “I thought you had to see and smell the books and feel a sense of involvement immediately.”

The skylight that runs the length of the repository is more than a way to break up a monolithic ceiling. It’s also a metaphor: “These were books that had years of cherished use and then were stored away in attics and basements,” Moore says. “They had been in the dark, and I wanted to put them in the sunlight again.”

Everything in Moore’s design was carefully considered. Visitors’ first stop is usually the Esther Ohsie Klein Welcome Gallery, one of two hexagonal spaces with clerestory windows that flank the entrance (the other space houses the Center’s bookstore). As visitors settle in to watch a brief orientation film, docents encourage them to look up at the ceiling, where overhead beams form a Star of David.

Indeed, much in Moore’s design is informed by Jewish traditions, often in subtle ways. The eighty-seat Applebaum-Driker Theater, for instance—a venue for lectures and educational programs—is a secular space designed with a religious subtext. “It looks like a small synagogue,” Moore says. The Center’s library, with its bookcases of glass and pale wood, evokes the simplicity of a rabbi’s study. Glass and wood display cases, designed by Moore’s wife, master cabinetmaker Suzi Moore, have slightly angled tops that recall the slanted table on the synagogue bima, where the Torah is traditionally unfurled and read.

Moore’s work on the Yiddish Book Center was informed by projects he’d done earlier in his career, including the visitor and education centers at Old Sturbridge Village. It was also influenced, improbably, by projects he’d done in the West Indies, where he spent several years after graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. The limited materials and small workforce available there necessitated a creative approach to his work—and also echoed the challenges faced by the shtetl builders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “The Yiddish Book Center,” Moore notes, “is very much what they would have built if they’d had the technology and materials.”

Moore announced his retirement after the completion of the Kaplen Family Building in 2009. Several days later he received a call from Kigali, Rwanda; the caller knew of his work at the Yiddish Book Center and wanted him to do something similar in Rwanda—to design a library and cultural center that would stand as an act of reconciliation in the aftermath of that country’s genocide.

Moore accepted the job pro bono. Over the next five years he not only designed the building but also raised funds, surmounted countless bureaucratic and diplomatic hurdles, and supervised construction. Today the Rwanda center—like the Yiddish Book Center—is full of activity from morning till night.

Moore is by nature a modest man, but his pride is unmistakable as he stands in the Great Hall of the Yiddish Book Center and looks out over what he’s built. College students burst through the double doors on their way to class. Young people push heavy carts laden with newly arrived boxes down the skylit corridor of the book repository. Staff members scurry to and fro, collaborating on educational programs, digitization, translation, and other cutting-edge projects that were unimaginable when Moore conceived the building more than twenty years ago.

“The measure of a great building is its ability to change and adapt,” he said back then. “A truly great building gets better with time.”

And so it has.

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