Hundreds of buildings throughout the Hill District have a Jewish backstory. But, by my count, only six have Jewish symbolism on their facades, left over from the days when the neighborhood was predominately Jewish. The first is the former Irene Kaufmann Settlement House auditorium on Center Avenue. The second is the former Hebrew Institute on Wylie Avenue. The other four are former synagogues — all now churches.
For years, there was a sixth-and-a-half: the former Labor Lyceum on Miller Street. It was a “half” because its symbolism was Jewish, but not explicitly so. Its cornerstone had been chiseled away, leaving only the partial phrase “of the world unite” and the date “1916.”
The building had long been boarded up, making it hard to sense its significance. This is where the archival record helps. Let’s rewind to September 3, 1916, when the cornerstone was laid. A Pittsburgh Daily Post photographer happened to be present on that Sunday, Labor Day weekend, when “close to 5,000 Jews” gathered to watch the ceremony.
The local chapters of the Workman’s Circle had formed Labor Lyceum Inc. in 1907 as an umbrella organization for Jewish labor activity throughout the Hill District. A decade of fundraising, overlapping with World War I, when Jewish charitable giving was already pushed to its limits, finally culminated in the cornerstone-laying ceremony in late 1916.
The Labor Lyceum opened in February 1917 and became a meeting place for at least fifteen Jewish labor, fraternal, political, cultural and philanthropic organizations, including the Stogie Makers Union Local 1, the Jewish Branch of the Socialist Party of Pittsburgh and the Maretzer Relief Society. The Lyceum had a hall and a library, and it sponsored a Jewish dramatic club, a Jewish choir and a Yiddish-language secular school.
From this narrow point of view, the Lyceum advanced a broad outlook. It backed causes with no direct connection to the Jewish community, supporting striking coal miners and steel workers. It also reached out a hand to its neighbors. According to Dr. Ida Selavan Schwarcz, a pioneering historian of our Jewish community, the Lyceum was “the first white organization in the city to rent its hall to black groups for meetings and dances.”
Labor Lyceum Inc. sold its building in 1930, in a heartbreaking story too convoluted to tell here. African-American groups in the Hill District then carried on the spirit of the building—hosting events, speakers and meetings. In late spring 1937, the New Theatre produced a run of Irwin Shaw’s “Bury the Dead” that theater historian Lynne Conner believes to be the first racially integrated noncommercial theatrical production in the city.
It would be naïve to use these facts as proof that everyone always got along. They didn’t, not any more than they ever have. But the Labor Lyceum was a testament to the idealistic notion that people could get along, that it was possible. In a speech at the cornerstone laying ceremony in 1916, Dr. Max Goldfarb of The Forward said that, in a country where profit was often the highest ideal, the Labor Lyceum promoted the ideal of solidarity.
The Labor Lyceum became a Church of God in Christ in late 1937. The building had fallen into major disrepair by the time Derrick Tillman, President and CEO of Bridging the Gap Development LLC, acquired it in 2016. He reluctantly demolished it to accommodate a new affordable housing development that includes an innovative supportive services program for its residents. The building is set to open this spring.
Tillman values neighborhood history. He salvaged the iconic cornerstone and donated it to the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives. He also went one step further, commissioning a plaque detailing the history of the Labor Lyceum and the Church of God in Christ. Through his generous efforts, the idealistic spirit of the building endures. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-454-6406.