Thursday, July 23, 2020

The 1922 I.L.G.W.U "International Building" - 3 West 16th Street

On June 19, 1910, the year after his father left the White House, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was married to Eleanor Butler Alexander in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.  Perhaps in hopes of avoiding excessive press, the groom's uncle and father met at the home of a friend prior to the ceremony.  The Evening Telegram reported "Kermit met his brother, Theodore, at the house of Mr. Robert C. Perkins, No. 3 West Sixteenth street, and accompanied him to the church."   

Built in 1846, the Greek Revival house just west of Fifth Avenue had been home to the Perkins family for decades.  Already the neighborhood around the residence was changing and by 1920 most of the wealthy families had moved uptown.  On May 1 that year the Record & Guide reported that the estate of Eliza W. Perkins had sold the three-story house to Hinds, Hayden & Eldridge, adding "On the site the new owners will erect a 7-story loft building for their own use."

By July 16 when architect Charles H. Higgins filed plans there were now six and a half floors.  The 33-foot wide office building was projected to cost $100,000 to construct--about $1.28 million today.  If Hinds, Hayden & Eldridge had actually intended to use the structure for its own purposes, it seems that the idea quickly dissolved.  On May 8 The Record & Guide now described it as a "brick and stone store and showroom building."  But that would soon change, too.

In December, with four floors constructed, the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union purchased the property.  The Record & Guide advised "Plans are being furnished for extensive alterations to the building with a view to use it by the purchasers for executive offices."  Higgins changed course, adapting his plans for the union's needs, including a large auditorium, meeting rooms, and offices.

Completed in 1920, the limestone clad structure was dignified and unpretentious.  Higgins may have given a nod to the Perkins house by nearly duplicating its eared door frame around the two entrances.  Between them a carved panel held the inscription LABOR OMNIA VINCIT, or Work Conquers All.

The Latin inscription was in the panel directly above the ground floor window, its praise of the rewards of work now discreetly covered.
Carved decorations at the second floor reflected the garment industry with crossed scissors and rulers, ribbons and fabric below entwined wreaths.  A sharp dentiled cornice separated the upper portion, where shallow spandrel carvings represented balustrades.  Between the fifth and sixth floors, they changed to swags of fabric instead of than the more expected fruit or flowers.  Rather than a terminal cornice, Higgins went with a paneled parapet.

Founded in 1900, the I.L.G.W.U had greatly improved the formerly inhumane conditions of garment factories, often by organizing city-wide strikes.  The union had also attained better pay and working hours for the women.

Higgins may have been inspired to design the eared doorway frame by that of the Perkins house, identical to the one that survives next door.
As well as the offices of the I.L.G.W.U, the building housed a number of related organizations, like the White Goods Workers Union, the Misses and Children's Dressmakers Union, the Bookkeepers, Stenographers and Accountants Union, and the Waterproof Garment Workers Union.

The first large assembly in the auditorium of what was being called the International Building was the Socialist Party Convention on July 2, 1922.   That night the delegates nominated Dr. Charles P Steinmetz, the electric expert of the General Electric Co. to its slate.  The New-York Tribune pointed out that "Before coming to this country, Dr. Steinmetz was editor of a Socialist publication in Breslau, Germany."

The tools of the industry--scissors, rules, fabric and ribbon, decorate the facade.
The union, more accustomed to combating factory owners and management, was faced with infighting in 1926.  A schism had developed between the Socialist and Communist members for control of the union.  On December 14 meetings were being held here as 2,000 of the Communist-leaning workers were dropped off in front of the building to picket.

The Daily News reported "for an hour and a half the mob, about 70 per cent women workers, paraded up and down 16th st., between 5th and 6th aves.  They were kept on the move by a special detail of police."  Then things went horribly wrong.

One of the picketers struck a union striker.  "This was a signal for a general melee.  Women shrieked and men, maddened by the thought of weeks of unemployment for reasons they cannot understand, struck out with both hands at their nearest neighbors."  About 500 men rushed the doors of No. 3 and "for a few minutes, fists and clubs took the place of peaceful arbitration between the left and the right wings of the union," said the article.

The Daily News headline read "40 Men Injured, Women Trampled As Reds Riot in Cloak Union War."  The article began "Women were trampled, babies were thrown out of carriages, and more than forty men were bruised and beaten yesterday."

Police emptied the building following the riot.  Daily News, December 15, 1926
A massive strike occurred in February 1932, the union telling reporters that between 15,000 and 18,000 garment workers had walked off the job.  Masses of strikers filled the streets in the Garment District.  The New York Sun reported "The strikers, most of whom are girls, wore paper arm bands bearing the legend 'Dress Strike I. L. G. W. U.' in large red letters."  The union's 56-year old founder and president, Benjamin Schlesinger, and its secretary, David Dubinsky, visited the picketers, who were fighting for better working conditions and against wage reductions.  About 1,500 workers crammed 16th Street outside of the headquarters building.

Shockingly, four months later Schlesinger was dead.  He had became ill and gone to Colorado Springs to rest.  There on June 5 he suffered a brain hemorrhage.  The New York Sun said that his tireless work "may have been partially responsible" for his death.   It said he "was regarded by his followers as a martyr to the cause of labor."

Schlesinger's funeral was held in the auditorium of the International Building.  On June 9 The New York Sun wrote "The body was taken to the headquarters of the union last night and lay in state at the foot of the auditorium stage, which was filled with hundreds of floral tributes.  Members of the union began to assemble at daylight and by the time the doors were opened to admit them to view the body there were fully 10,000 in the throng."

His was the first of several funerals of union leaders held in the auditorium.  On December 6, 1935 the services for former president Abraham Rosenberg was held here; and exactly three years later to the day several hundred mourners filled the auditorium for the funeral of Basilio Desti, a union vice president, while approximately 1,000 others crammed the street outside to hear the eulogies on speakers.  

In exchange for the benefits and protection provided by the union, its members were expected to follow the union line without question.  On November 2, 1936, for instance, The New York Sun reported "Final 'voting orders' went out to the members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union today."  In the messages president David Dubinsky said in part "Cast your own vote and get your family and friends to vote for Roosevelt and Lehman."  The Sun said that the hand-delivered messages were a "more-than-gentle hint that the union expected every member to do his or her duty at the polls tomorrow."

Another funeral, this one for Elias Reisberg, took place here in August 1943.  It was the last major gathering in the auditorium.  The union purchased the old Tammany Hall building on Union Square and in July 1944 sold No. 3 West 16th Street to the National Council of Young Israel.

The New York Sun reported that the philanthropic and religious organization "will use the building as its national headquarters.  Alterations costing approximately $50,000 and including a synagogue, library, conference rooms, and a restaurant, are to be made to the premises."

As well as the offices of the National Council of Young Israel, space would be occupied by its Veterans' Service Bureau (formed in 1944 "to treat the religious problems of returning veterans," according to Edward S. Silver, president of the Council); P'Eylim, or the American Yeshiva Student Union; and the International Collegiate Council.

The Magen David of Union Square, a yeshiva, was located in the building by the last quarter of the century.  The ground floor sanctuary was known as Young Israel of Fifth Avenue.

Trouble arose in 2003.  On June 4 Jeffrey Cole Architects filed plans for "conversion and enlargement of an existing commercial building to residential lofts."  The National Council of Young Israel had found a buyer willing to pay $5.4 million to the property.

But the synagogue quickly went to court to stop the plan.  Its 71-year old rabbi, Israel Wohlgelernter, told Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times "They are in effect closing a synagogue.  That's profaning their mission, by selling the building for monetary gain."  To do so, he said, was in violation of Jewish law.

The synagogue was victorious, at least for a while.  On September 10, 2003 the State Supreme Court issued a reprieve from eviction, saying the owners had "failed to follow the property procedures in voting to sell the six-story building."

But in 2015 the stand-off ended as renovations began to convert the building to a commercial space on the ground floor and one apartment on each of the upper floors.  The bronze letters which had announced the National Council of Young Israel and the stained glass window between the entrances were removed, and the Latin inscription touting the powers of work was covered by a decorative panel.  But the scissors and rulers in the second floor carvings still remind us that the building was once the headquarters of the powerful women's garment workers union.

photographs by the author

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