The Concordia Club, a social mainstay of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community since 1874, may soon be no more.
The Property and Facilities Committee of the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees announced last week it will purchase the Concordia Club’s Oakland property for $2.1 million.
The board of the Concordia Club decided to sell the facility because of financial difficulties.
“We started looking into selling the club late last year because we were running out of money,” said a spokesperson for the club who asked not to be identified. “Membership is down and usage is down.”
The Concordia Club approached university officials to see if there was any interest in purchasing the property, said Eli Shorak, associate vice chancellor for the University of Pittsburgh.
“We were interested in purchasing it because of its location,” said Shorak, adding that the building is contiguous to other university buildings.
Shorak said that the university did not yet know for what purpose the property would be used.
The Concordia Club building, at 4024 O’Hara St., has been used as a private club since 1913. The club was originally located in a private residence on Pittsburgh’s North Side. In 1890, because of its popularity, the club relocated to a larger building on Stockton Street, also on the North Side, before moving to its current location.
Established in 1874 by a group of prominent Jewish members of the Pittsburgh community, including Judge Josiah Cohen, most of the club’s early members, and nearly all of its officers, were German Jews, and members of Rodef Shalom Congregation.
According to its charter, the purpose of the club was to “promote social and literary entertainment among its members.”
Establishments such as the Concordia Club sprang up across the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when Jews were typically denied membership in the prominent social and business clubs of the day.
Such discrimination was common in most major cities in the United States, including Pittsburgh. The Duquesne Club, Downtown, did not begin to admit Jews until 1968.
“The late 19th century was a moment when you begin to see social discrimination against Jews, meaning they’re kept out of non-Jewish clubs,” said Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. “Jews established kind of equivalent institutions, with similar designs and requirements and rules.”
Sarna noted that the founding of such clubs was similar to the creation of Jewish fraternities and hotels.
“It’s a parallel universe that Jews create when they are excluded from non-Jewish institutions,” Sarna said.
In fact, Sarna noted, some internal discrimination often existed within the walls of the club itself. In Cincinnati, Sarna said, there were two Jewish clubs: one for German Jews, and a separate club for Jews of Eastern European descent.
Although there is nothing in the Concordia Club’s charter prohibiting membership to Eastern European Jews, “that was probably true at the beginning,” said Martha Berg, archivist at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
In the mid-20th century, when social discrimination against Jews began to decline, and Jews began to gain membership into the non-Jewish clubs, “in many communities, the Jewish clubs went out of existence,” Sarna said.
“Most of these Jewish clubs were non-religious, and not kosher,” he continued. “It was easy for these people to move over, and many were thrilled to do so. The purpose of these [non-Jewish] clubs was to bring people together for business reasons. Those clubs had benefits that the Jewish clubs did not.”
Although several of the Jewish clubs across the country have remained vital, many have closed their doors.
“In Cincinnati, both the Jewish clubs have disappeared,” Sarna said. “That simply has been a function of the new reality.”
Concordia Club’s three-story, 18,000 square feet building on O’Hara Street sits on approximately one-half acre of land. The building includes banquet facilities, meeting rooms and offices for the use of its members.
“I grew up there,” said Fred Colen, a member of the club for over 30 years. “My parents joined when they came to Pittsburgh after World War II. I had dinner there every Sunday night with my parents and grandparents. It was a very warm, family environment.”
“I became a member when I came back to Pittsburgh in 1975,” Colen continued. “And I used it. We took our kids there, and I used it for business lunches in Oakland. But from a social standpoint, it stopped serving its purpose, at least from my vantage point. I stayed a member because my parents were early members. I think its time was coming, but I can’t give you a good reason why it’s no longer an important part of my life.”
The board of the Concordia Club has not yet decided whether it will try to re-locate to another location, or dissolve, said its spokesperson.
“I’ll miss it,” Colen said. “I have wonderful memories that I’ll never forget.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)