Mendelsohn Erich (born in 1887 in Olsztyn, died in 1953 in San Francisco) – an architect and art theorist.
The most prominent Jew coming from Olsztyn was Erich Mendelsohn, a worldwide famous architect and one of the founders and propagators of constructivism, modernism and German expressionism, author of several publications on architecture. He was born on 21 March 1887, in a tenement house on the former 21 Podgórna Street (Oberstrasse, now 10 Staromiejska Street; a plaque embedded in the wall on the side of Św. Barbara Street commemorates his place of birth). He was the fifth son of Dawid and Emma (maiden name: Jaruslawska) Mendelsohn. The father was a merchant, and the mother was a milliner.
His schooling in Olsztyn did not foreshadow a future genius for he finished a secondary school without any aspirations to take up any further academic education – he prepared himself to become a merchant in Berlin. Nevertheless, he started to study economics at the university in Munich. Then he supported Zionism, and soon he joined the Zionist Union in Germany (Zionistische Vereinigung für Deutschland). In 1908, he returned to Berlin when he began studying architecture at the Technical University, however, 2 years later he once again went to Munich. There, in 1912, he finished his studies summa cum laude. In Munich he got to know Theodor Fischer’s art, he also was in touch with members of art groups such as Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke. In 1911 he was asked by kahal from Olsztyn to design Bet Tahar shtiebel, which was his first completed project. It was erected near the local Jewish cemetery (a present-day Zyndram from Maszkowice Street) which still exists there.
In 1912-1914, Mendelsohn run his own architectural studio in Munich, and one year later he got married to a violoncellist Luise Maas. Thanks to his wife, he could get acquainted with the astrophysicist Erwin Freundlich and his brother Herbert who was the vice-president of Fritz Haber Institution in Berlin-Dahlem. He tried to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity, and that is why he needed an observatory, the so-called Einstein Tower (Einsteinturm). Mendelsohn was asked to design it (in 1920-1921). The architect was also a close friend to Salomon and Gustav Hermann, hat manufacturers from Luckenwalde. He can also credit them with playing a role in his pre-war successes, as he built a manufactury for the Hermann brothers.
After the outbreak of WWI, Mendelsohn was drafted. In his free time, he was sketching projects of factories and other types of buildings, which he often enclosed to the letters from Russian and French front lines to his wife. After the war was over, at the end of 1918, Mendelsohn – famous for his previous works – founded his own studio in Berlin. In 1920 in Amsterdam, the journal “Wendingen” devoted to his work was published. Hendrik Wijdeveld was its publisher. 4 years later in one of the volumes of “Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst” he was mentioned, too. In the very same year, Ludwig van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Erich Mendelsohn founded an architectural collective Der Ring, formed by many modern architects. He also met Kandinsky, Klee and Marc. During his travel to America, Mendelsohn met Frank Lloys Wright. Since then on ocean liners and streetcars were his new inspiration. Mendelsohn’s studio was developing rapidly, there were about 40 people employed, among them: Richard Neutra, Hans Schwippert, Ernst Sagebiel, and Julius Posener (a critique and an art historian). As a result of the large number of well-paid jobs, Mendelsohn managed to accumulate considerable wealth and in 1926 he bought a mansion in Berlin. Two years later he began building his own house on a plot of 400 sq m in the Berlin district of Rupenhorn.
Among the most distinguished and appreciated of his projects were: “Berliner Tageblatt” newspaper’s seat in Berlin (1921-1923), Weichmann Silk House in Gliwice (1922), the Loge of Three Patriarchs (Zu den drei Erzvätern) in Tylża, department stores in Stuttgart (1925-1926) and Chemnitz (1927-1928), R. Petersdorff department store in Wrocław, Universum Movie Theater, German Syndicate of Embroidery and Columbus-Haus in Berlin, pavilion at the press exhibition in Kiel, etc. In 1925, he was invited to the Soviet Union by the authorities, and in – then – Leningrad he designed the Krasnoje Znamja, a manufactory of stocking and knittery. His projects were also implemented in Norway. In 1929, Mendelsohn created a development planning of the Jewish cemetery on Steffeckstrasse in Königsberg. As it later turned out, it was the last Jewish project in East Prussia. The so-called “Deutsche Haus” hotel in his hometown was remodeled according to Mendelsohn’s project.
As the Nazis came to power in 1933, Mendelsohn emigrated to London due to his Jewish origins. The National Socialists seized his property, and expunged his name from the list of German architects. He was also excluded from the Prussian Academy of Arts (Preuβische Akademie der Künste). In England, Mendelsohn co-worked with Serge Chermayeff until 1936. He also won a competition for the design of the De La Warr Pavilion. Later on, he went to Palestine, where he opened a studio in Jerusalem in 1935. According to his projects there were built, among others: the University Hospital in Jerusalem, the government hospital in Haifa, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, and Chaim Weizmann’s mansion (future president of Israel).
In 1938, Mendelsohn accepted British citizenship and changed his name to Erich. In 1941, he finally settled down in the USA. For he had not got American citizenship, until the end of the WWII he could only give academic lectures and publish his works. Nevertheless, he was an aide to the American government. In 1945, he moved to San Francisco where he worked for various kahals. Among his projects of that period were: synagogues in St. Louis, Cleveland (1946), in Washington, in Baltimore, in Dallas, Maimonides hospital in San Francisco. In the latter, on September 15, 1953, Erich Mendelsohn died of cancer with which he struggled for several dozen years and due to which he lost his eye back in 1921.
On September 6, 2009, at the conference of architects, Erich Mendelsohn Foundation (Erich-Mendelsohn-Stiftung) was founded by the Berlin architect Helge Pitz, who had renovated several buildings designed by Mendelsohn. The aim of the Foundation is to examine the life and works of German architects of Jewish origin.
K.-D. Alicke, Lexikon der jüdischen Gemeinden im deutschen Sprachraum, Vol. I, (2008), column 50.
R. Bętkowski, Olsztyn jakiego nie znacie. Obraz miasta na dawnej pocztówce, (2003), 71.
J. Chłosta, Znani i nieznani olsztyniacy XIX i XX wieku, (1996), 133–135.
R. Kabus, Juden in Ostpreussen, (1998), 102, 134–135.
A. Sommerfeld, Juden im Ermland, in: “Zur Geschichte und Kultur der Juden in Ost- und Westpreussen”, M. Brocke, M. Heitmann, L. Lordick (eds.), (2000), 53.
B. Wolski, Eryk Mendelsohn — architekt z Olsztyna, in: “Szkice Olsztyńskie”, ed. J. Jasiński, (1967), 258–265.