Right at the bend where Centre Avenue leaves Oakland is a set of concrete steps. Climb them, and you’ll reach the foot of Avalon Street, in the upper Hill District. That’s where nine Jewish high school boys, on Thursday, May 5, 1927, started the J.N. Chester Club.
The boys named the club after their sponsor, John Needles Chester. Chester was a prominent water and sewer engineer who lived directly across the street from those steps, on a big estate hidden in a corner of the tony Schenley Farms district. He was a bachelor and a member of the Protestant elite of Pittsburgh. He belonged to both the Duquesne Club and the University Club, neither of which accepted Jewish members at that time.
Who knows how this engineer came to meet these working-class Jewish kids? Perhaps he watched them hustling along Centre Avenue each day, to and from Schenley High School, and struck up a conversation. That type of fortuitous encounter can easily arise when people from different circumstances live within close proximity of each other.
The J.N. Chester Club faltered at first. The boys all agreed that their top priority should be sports and their second priority should be “to promote harmony and friendship among its members in future years.” Beyond that, they didn’t know what it meant to have a club.
That changed in 1928, when they affiliated with the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House and were assigned an advisor, a young Jewish lawyer named Reuben J. Gershon. He encouraged the boys to broaden their interests beyond athletics. Soon they were pursuing debate and drama, holding meetings, and arranging banquets, barn dances and boat rides.
The J.N. Chester Club joined the Young Men’s and Women’s Hebrew Association in 1929. Here it entered an entire world of clubs. The Jewish youth of Pittsburgh were crazy for clubs in the years before World War II. There were literally dozens of them, and they all had superb names, like the Enoch Rauh Club, Omega Theta Mu, the Somer Somerman Boys Club, the Amie Club, the Windslow Juniors, and the Velox Club. To encourage and structure these clubs, the YMWHA convened a “Congress of Clubs,” a sort of hyperlocal United Nations with a dab of the tribal competitiveness that underpins the Olympics.
Some of these clubs were only for boys. Others were only for girls. Some favored athletics; others academics. But, at their heart, no one club differed all that much from any other. Each was a group of friends, channeling the freewheeling camaraderie of youth through the formalities of club life — minutes to record meetings, broadsides to announce functions, letterhead to send correspondence, newsletters to document events.
All that paper, in time, becomes an archival record. The J.N. Chester Club left behind three volumes. The first is a minute book, irreverently documenting club meetings from 1931 to 1940. “In old news,” the first entry reads, “the scrap book was argued over, Mr. Bloom insisting that his poetry be included.” The second is that scrapbook, the gorgeously hand-illustrated (and poetry-free) volume seen here. It provides a history of the club through 1932, biographies of each member and an overview of club activities.
The third volume is a scrapbook from the early 1940s. The cover is a textured collage made from hand-cut pieces of cork. Inside is a decade of club ephemera, from High Holiday greeting cards and menus to bank statements and newspaper clippings and photos.
All three volumes ended up in the possession of Manny Gold, a founding member of the club. He kept them safe for half a century. When the specter of mortality convinced him he could not hold onto them for all eternity, he stashed them in a filing cabinet at the JCC belonging to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. There they stayed for more than a decade, until being donated to the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives, which cherishes them nearly as much as those boys who put so much heart into them in the first place. pjc
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.