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Labor Lyceum

     Site Visit: "After driving down Fifth Avenue into Oakland and then up Bigelow Boulevard to Centre Avenue following it into the Hill District; we pass the New Granada Theater on the right, a once famous jazz club, now boarded up.  Now drive past the Ebenezer Towers on the left and the Hillhouse on the right and the tall Grecian columns of the famous Irene Kaufmann Settlement building, which in the 1930's served the immigrant population of the Hill District.  At this point, the Civic Arena and the edge of downtown are visible -- and here we see the sign for Miller Street, which is the street we were looking for.
     Taking a left down Miller we pass the Miller School on the right -- note this school on the Plat Map from 1923 (large map).  On the left is a former orthodox synagogue now used as a church.  Nearing the corner of Miller and Reed Street, we see a large brick building all boarded up.

     Four stories high with seven windows on each floor across the front, it is a solid, imposing looking building.  There is no street number or name on it and a stone arch over the boarded up central doors is one of the few architectural ornaments.   You can climb up on the grassy rise of the vacant lot and get a look at the breadth of this structure which extends for a good hundred feet to where it backs on the modest houses one block over.
     Is this the building we are looking for?  It is in about the right place, and the presence of other contemporary structures -- the Miller School, the synagogue, is a hopeful sign.  Some descriptions had said "the corner of Miller and Reed" and this is one lot up from the corner?
     Is there any way to confirm or disconfirm the identity of the building?
     On the right front corner of the building on the level of the second story there is a large circular stone emblem in the form of a seal (probably 2 feet in diameter).  Getting a closer look at it, the seal or emblem is partly broken off or eroded so that only about half of the design remains.  However, you can make out the numbers 9, then a few spaces, 16.  The building must have been dedicated in 1916.
     There is also a motto which ran in a circle or semicircle at the bottom of the seal, underneath what appeared to be a design of a globe:  The motto is of course incomplete, but what remains says: "of the world unite".  It must have been "WORKERS of the world unite"!  Part of the famous phrase from Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto of 1848.  The socialist inspiration was clear.  It is equally clear that this is indeed the building we are looking for -- the Labor Lyceum."

The Labor Lyceum

     The Labor Lyceum was dedicated in 1916, but funds for its construction had started to be raised as early as 1907.  As the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House was the most significant general community center for the Jews of the Hill,  the Labor Lyceum was the center, the beating heart, of the immigrant Jewish labor movement in Pittsburgh, with its predominantly socialist political/philosophical outlook and its cultural commitment to the Yiddish language and culture.  Following its opening in the middle of WWI, an array of politically left working class institutions used this building; including the Jewish Socialists (Third Ward Branch of the Allegheny County Socialist Party), the Arbeiter Rings or Workmen's Circles which were insurance, burial and pro-labor fraternal and political formations active in labor struggles (1919 Steel Strike, acted as collection point for Jewish aid to the striking steelworkers and organized caravans of foods to the miners; they also have their own cemeteries in Reserve Township in the hillside above Millvale), and the Jewish Communists who emerged into focus only after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but always a significant presence down to the 1950's.  Also, the Labor Zionists or Poale Zionists met in the Labor Lyceum for a time rather than the Zionist Institute on Center Avenue where other more politically mainstream Zionist groups met.  There was also for a time A Jewish day school to teach Yiddish.
     There were several Jewish unions in Pittsburgh -- part of larger unions but with an overwhelming immigrant Jewish membership: Garment Workers, Local 65 of Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Stogie Workers Local 101, IWW, Jewish Bakery Workers.
     All of these unions were founded before the LL was built, and before WWI they primarily served the Jewish immigrant workers who crowded into the Hill District -- from Russia, Hungary, Romania, etc.  Some of the socialist, pro-labor ideas came from the old country, where the socialist parties had been the most willing to invite Jews to participate in their revolutionary aspirations.  Of these the Jewish Bakers were the longest lived and best documented.  We know for certain that they used the Labor Lyceum.
     The Lyceum was sold in 1930. Today, as mentioned, the building is sound but boarded up. While it flourished it was evidently a scene of great vitality, embodying a vision or several visions of economic justice and human betterment. That vision based on a recognition of class difference and conflict and a loyalty to Yiddish culture, probably stood in its day as something of a contrast and counterpart to the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House up the street, which provided many services to the immigrant population but with the aim more to raise them up and help Americanize them.


View a minute book entry mentioning the Labor Lyceum

Photos of the Labor Lyceum

Labor Politics (Socialists and other labor parties)

Jewish Bakers Union

(Map Source:  Real Estate Plat Book of the City of Pittsburgh 1923 AIS ffG1264P6H62 v.1)