Joseph Hirsch

Posted by Ellen

One of about a dozen murals painted in 1938 by Joseph Hirsch to decorate the basement walls of a long-since-abandoned building on South Street in Philadelphia, this one is titled "A Mechanical Engineering Problem." I can't say I know for certain what the joke is here, though the fact that the art had been commissioned by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), who owned the building and used it for an office and social center, would have to be a major clue. My guess is that the mustachioed tailors portrayed here were not union workers and were not particularly skilled suitmakers, either; perhaps the point is that only a chump would order a custom-tailored suit from guys like these instead of buying a ready-made, union-made coat and trousers.

Here is another take on the same theme:

In this image, the chump is getting an ill-fitting suit not because it's off-the-shelf and union-made but because the slimeball salesmen can't or won't be bothered to fit him properly. The superiority of union needlework–which the establishment advertises prominently–is or ought to be a selling point among highfalutin haberdashers.

Whatever the punch line, the ACWA was happy with the murals and rehired Hirsch a couple of years later to do a much larger and more formal work for the wall of their auditorium upstairs: a mural 11 feet high and 65 feet long–the largest the entire city at the time–which traced the early history of labor unions in the United States. It was later removed from the building and installed in the lobby of the Sidney Hillman Apartments a few blocks away.

Sidney Hillman, who founded the ACWA, had no personal association with Philadelphia; he was born in Lithuania, and after being imprisoned for labor agitation in Poland in the early years of the twentieth century, he settled in Chicago, where he organized several powerful unions and steered the American labor movement toward the Democratic Party in general and Franklin Roosevelt in particular. But his ACWA represented about 25,000 Philadelphians in the 1930s, when locals from around the city got together to buy the building at 2101 South Street, which became known as the Amalgamated Center. There were offices upstairs, an auditorium and meeting rooms on the main floor, and a swimming pool, gym, and social hall in the basement.

The building was already set up for pretty much these same functions and had been since before 1900, when wealthy merchant John Wanamaker financed its construction for the Bethany Brotherhood, a men's fellowship and social lodge from nearby Bethany Presbyterian Church. During World War I, the Brotherhood turned over the building for housing and recrational use by soldiers and sailors on leave; more than 8,000 servicemen swam, played, and partied there in 1917 and 1918, with Wanamaker picking up the tab for operating costs.

The Amalgamated unions bought it in 1934 and remodeled and expanded it, eventually cladding many walls in marble; the ACWA and a series of affiliated and successor unions occupied the building until 1984, when declining membership led to its sale as office space for Graduate Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

In recent years, it has sat empty. But this week, the basement and much of the first floor of the old Amalgamated Center reopened to something like its original function: once again, the place is a gym, this time operated by a private company, City Fitness. Old Sidney Hillman would not have approved of how the renovation work was undertaken; a couple of weeks before the reopening, there were pickets in front of the building, in response to a subcontractor's use of non-union labor.

Hirsch's murals in the basement will also meet an inglorious fate (as if the graffiti wasn't enough). They are theoretically protected by the building's inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places, but what that means in practice is that City Fitness will soon be hiding most of them, covering them over with mirrors for the exercise rooms.

Meanwhile, for a brief moment in a new century, Sidney Hillman, "The Guide and Spirit of Amalgamated C.W.," is once again flying free, even if he does have a heart inked on his bicep with the name Carmine inside: