Architect chosen to renovate Tree of Life

Portrait of Dan Rothschild
After the 2018 hate crime at Tree of Life, Rothschild held a series of pro bono listening sessions to get a sense of what they wanted to see in a new design. He distilled the more than 2,000 comments into a document he presented to the congregation on the first anniversary of the killings. Photo by John Altdorfer

othschild Doyno Collaborative, the architectural/urban design firm of Sunnyhill Drive resident Dan Rothschild, is partnering with an internationally known architect to redesign and renovate the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill. A mass shooting at the synagogue on October 27, 2018, left 11 people dead, six wounded, and the congregation traumatized.

The congregation chose Rothschild Doyno over a number of other local architects to work with Daniel Libeskind, architect of the master plan for the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. The son of Holocaust survivors, Libeskind also designed the Jewish Museum Berlin, the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen, and many other projects.

“This is a model Studio Libeskind has used all over the world,” Rothschild said. “Two companies form a team that collaborates through the end of the project. This is their formula for using their expertise and interweaving it with local knowledge. Obviously, we were delighted to be included.”

Rothschild became a registered architect in 1984 and opened his own firm in 1988. After earning a master’s in architecture from North Carolina State in 1981, he and his wife, Lori, considered where to settle down. “We looked at a book called Places Rated Almanac, and the top four cities were Chicago, Washington D.C., Atlanta and Pittsburgh, so we visited them all. When we rolled into town here and looked at the beauty of Pittsburgh and its architecture, I just kind of thought, ‘This has to be it.’”

He and Lori moved to Mt. Lebanon in 1993 and have raised their four children here. He loves the community’s walkable neighborhoods, parks and open spaces, school system, residential architecture and the fact that “it’s a tennis community—my favorite sport.”

Rothschild has worked on several renovation and design projects in the South Hills, most notably, Mt. Lebanon’s Art Deco Municipal Building in 2004; the South Hills Jewish Community Center in 1996; the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills in 2017; and Temple Emanuel, where he is a member and past president, in 2003.

Now one of the 10 largest architecture firms in the city, Rothschild Doyno owns its own award-winning building in the Strip District, renovated from a garage. Rothschild says his firm’s strength is in its collaborative nature. “We try to find synergy between diverse points of view. We’re distinguished by our approach and the types of processes we do.”

Less than two months after the massacre at Tree of Life, Rothschild conducted a series of pro bono listening sessions at the request of congregational leaders, who knew him because of previous renovation work his firm had done there.

“We’ve had some experience with clients who have gone through trauma—not on this scale, but people who have been affected by discrimination and income inequality. We’ve developed a process for deep listening and for recording their information. I thought we could try to apply it here to see if it might be helpful.”

Meeting in small groups, participants were asked questions and wrote their answers on Post-It notes that were then shared with the group and discussed. At the end Rothschild asked each person to focus on the one word that described how he/she felt.

“They came up with words that were much more positive, even though they didn’t start out that way. It was challenging and exhausting, but so meaningful,” he said. “These people had gone through something that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy; they needed a pressure release valve.” The more than 2,000 comments that were made in these sessions went into a final document that was delivered before the first anniversary of the shooting.

Currently Studio Libeskind and Rothschild Doyno are in the concept/design phase. Rothschild describes this as bringing meaning to the project.

“Studio Libeskind is renowned for helping heal communities all over the world,” he said. “You can’t just leave trauma in the middle of a community, you need to bring hope and optimism. The Tree of Life campaign is called: Remember. Rebuild. Renew. If we can do that, the project will be a success. We want to help the congregation be resilient in the face of the worst anti-Semitic act in U.S. history, and move from the darkness of that event to light through the experience of meaningful architectural design.”

When asked why he thought his firm had been chosen for the project, he stopped to consider. “We have a 32-year history in Pittsburgh and have worked with dozens of local Jewish institutions during that time, so we have a deep knowledge of local history and context. We’re an award-winning design firm as well as an urban design firm, so we understand how buildings fit into a master plan.

“One of the guiding principles of our firm is social responsibility—tikkun olam in Judaism, helping to repair the world. We are trying to help this courageous congregation heal and move on. My Judaism is foundational to that. We’ve been fortunate to work with many mission-oriented organizations and religious communities. When you mix that with trying to make the world a better place, it feels like home.”

Photos by Rothschild Doyno Collaborative and John Altdorfer