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Holocaust Memorial Center to move downtown

The shape of memory

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Thanks to the hard work of Holocaust survivor Tess Wise and her late husband Abe, Central Florida came publicly to terms with the Holocaust in 1986. That's the year the Wises established the Holocaust Memorial Research and Education Center on the campus of Maitland's Jewish Community Center, when there were no monuments or museums for its remembrance anywhere in this region.

Now the Holocaust Center has announced that it will lease the former Chamber of Commerce building from the city of Orlando, making it possible to move this memorial into a place of its own. After merging with the Orlando Economic Development Commission, in June the Chamber moved out of the building it had rented from the city for $0 a year since the late 1960s. This iconic structure sits on a prominent site in our city's growing core, at the north end of downtown as it curves into the Lake Ivanhoe District.

Pam Kancher serves as the Holocaust Center's executive director, and we asked her how the Center will fit into its new building. "I see myself in the role of 'convener' to facilitate dialogue," she says, noting that the project is at its very beginning. She recalls the stimulus of the 1977 Klan march on Skokie, Illinois, which sparked national dialogue about the need for Holocaust remembrance.

Architecture's importance to Holocaust remembrance cannot be overstated: Being fairly permanent, architecture helps to bear witness to what happened. Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum Berlin, for example, is not only striking in its expression of the memorial function, but was quite controversial when it was built, serving as a social and aesthetic provocation to discourse. But Orlando was far from what happened, so this museum's role is different from other U.S. and European museums.

The current Maitland facility, a softly curved form, presents a unique sacred space to the street, a model of sensitivity and compassion. But of the range of buildings available as they expand in prominence, the Holocaust Center made a good choice in the Chamber of Commerce building as a starting point.

It was built in 1968 in Senator Beth Johnson Park, named for Florida's first female state senator in 1962. The Architectural Guide to Central Florida notes that architect Nils Schweizer's design is "a great example of his mature style, with brise soleil louvers that shade the large, glass-enclosed upper open floor plan from the strong Florida sun." It will be an ideal home for classroom space; the Center plans to add an auditorium and both a traveling and a permanent exhibit hall. The building's roof band separates from its solid, square corners ever so slightly, weaving openness into its otherwise strong, massive appearance. As a symmetrical structure it already has a sober, museum-like presence, and it will wear its new mission well.

The Center chose local design firm HuntonBrady Architects to accomplish the expansion. They will be paired with the world's foremost Holocaust exhibit design firm, Berenbaum Jacobs Associates, designers of several U.S. and international Holocaust memorials. Together over the next several years they expect to transform this block.

With fewer and fewer survivors, the most impactful way to preserve the Holocaust's memory is to tell stories. Tess Wise survived Radom, a concentration camp in Poland, and started telling her story to schoolchildren, who remain today the center's visitor base. The future Center will expand this base, and enable more of Central Florida's residents, as well as our 68 million visitors, to visit and remember.