‘Brick by brick, person by person’: Donor wall for Trager Family JCC to reflect Western Wall

By Lee Chottiner
Managing Editor

During his career, Phil Rowland has designed at least 12 “honor walls” – walls of tiles inscribed with the names of donors to an organizations.
But the Cincinnati resident and graphic designer for GBBN Architects has never had a project quite like the honor wall at the new Trager Family JCC, which will be dedicated by late summer.
This wall – floor to ceiling, 12.5 feet wide by 24 feet tall – tells a story.
“It’s such a wonderful story that you can easily understand,” Rowland said. “Some of these walls – and I’ve done them myself – can have more of a generic feel to them…. They will look nice, but when you can add that second layer, third layer of meaning and storytelling, it really helps to have buy-in from everybody.”
That is exactly what he did in designing the JCC’s honor wall.
Taking his inspiration from the Western Wall in Jerusalem, essentially built in three layers over three eras, Rowland has created a design that reflects the Kotel, with larger, darker, triangular plaques at the bottom, much like the oldest section of the wall, built in 36 B.C.E. Smaller, lighter tiles comprise the next layer (8th century C.E.) with the smallest, lightest tiles at the top (13th century C.E.). Each layer is distinct from the others.
“When you’re looking at the Western Wall … you can tell exactly where the work started and stopped for the next generation; you see between the size and color of the stones that are used; you can see this distinct leveling,” Rowland said.
“So, when we designed this donor wall, we mirrored that idea to where the first seven rows of these tiles have a different color and a different feeling, and the next four have a different color and a different feeling. But it’s subtle, just like the wall.”
Each of 417 tiles on the wall will be different, using four different thicknesses in eight different shades of blue and two different colors for text.
“No two tiles will be the same,” Rowland said.
Since the triangular tiles come together to make multiple Stars of David, the wall meshes well with the ceiling, which is designed in the same fashion. The purpose of the wall comes through in the design: No one or two donors built this JCC. “Achievements like this aren’t done by one person; you’ve got this beautiful illustration right in front of you of how it takes a collective group effort to make these really beautiful things like this JCC – the new JCC – happen.”
Stacy Gordon-Funk, senior vice president of philanthropy & chief development officer for the Jewish Federation of Louisville, said she was “thrilled” with the design.
“Our architects have been the perfect partners, helping us showcase our organizational values,” she said. “One of them is tzedakah, our commitment to make the world a better place.”
She thanked the honor wall committee: Madeline Abramson, Sarah O’Koon and Frank Weisberg.
“It’s a honor to recognize our donors,” she said.
A graphic designer for GBBN, the architectural firm that designed the JCC, for 10 years, Rowland has worked primarily on environmental graphic design strategies around wayfinding, signage and donor recognition.
He also founded a series of hand-drawn map installations on display throughout Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, including one in an 800-square foot space.
He called the Western Wall a “great analogy” for the work needed to build something like the JCC.
“It’s brick by brick, person by person, that builds these things, these buildings that we’re going into,” he said. “It took all of these donors, not just the big ones, to really make this thing happen.”

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