Restoring the temple that labor built
Labor history in Illinois is rich in tradition and vibrant personalities. But the collective history of the working people who built our cities and towns, though equally fascinating, is seldom as appreciated.
Take Jacksonville's Labor Temple. To some it's just another old, rundown building severely tested by time and weather. But the building's history and heritage reflect much honor on those who erected it.
The Labor Temple is a three-story rectangular brick building one block south of the Jacksonville town square. Nearly 100 years old, it is dilapidated and badly in need of repairs to its roof and interior. Few today can see the polished diamond envisioned by union members who met on January 3, 1904, to discuss plans to build a home for labor in Jacksonville and Morgan County.
The then newly chartered A.F. of L. group had been meeting for a little over a year and become dissatisfied with its rented quarters. The unionists wanted a central meeting place, a center for leisure activities, that symbolized their worth and value to their community. The following month, they purchased for $1,000 a dilapidated building at 228 S. Mauvaisterre, razed the building, and began building their Labor Temple. Only two such structures had been built previously in America, one in Los Angeles, the other in Belleville. To raise money the construction trades were assessed an additional per capita dues tax, but it was through volunteer sweat and donations from local businesses that the dream became brick and mortar. Hod carriers from Local #11 demolished the old building and saved many of its bricks.
A brick-maker donated bricks worth $100. A sheet metal dealer donated material for the tin roof. Several city plumbing firms donated fixtures. Other Jacksonville businesses gave $250 to cover other expenses.
All the work was union. The union carpenters worked day and night with volunteer labor to put up the walls and roof. Union plasterers finished the interior and decorated the ceilings in a bas-relief design of flowers, stems, and leaves. Union painters copied the pattern from the ceiling to the walls so the design flowed gracefully from one wall to the next. The only workers paid for their efforts were members of the Hod Carriers union, who work above and beyond the call.
When completed the building was three stories with a basement. Large meeting rooms were in the basement and on both the second and third floors. The union installed a system of speaking tubes in the walls extending from the offices on the first floor throughout the building. The first floor featured bas relief plastered ceilings and was thirteen feet high. Ceilings on the other two main floors were nearly eleven feet. The entrance lobby walls were beautifully done with a multicolored flower blossom motif. And the cornerstone were placed the names of 900 union members in Jacksonville, along with the words labor omnia vincit - labor binds all things. This was their building, their pride, their home.
The Jacksonville Trades and Labor Assembly used the building for decades. When the site was designated a National Historical Site in 1980, it was the oldest continuously used labor temple in the country. But times were changing. The Jacksonville Assembly was now a chapter of The Central Illinois Trades and Labor Council with offices in Springfield.
Eventually the Temple was sold for $1, with the stipulation that the trades could hold their annual meeting there. The new owners promised to improve the building through the use of community development grants and private funds. But none of these deals came
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through; the building fell into old age and disrepair. The company filed for bankruptcy and the property deed came back to labor.
In the fall of 2002 the City of Jacksonville took interest in the property. The Labor Temple, it decided, would be razed. The city prepared the demolition paperwork and submitted it to Ron Gilbert, the Jacksonville chapter president, who forwarded the documents to Springfield. But before demolition could begin it had to be voted upon council delegates and signed by its new president, Al Peiper. But Peiper and members of the council were unwilling to see labor's heritage lost, and mounted one last effort to raise funds to restore the Temple. The leadership approached Margaret Blackshere and Mike Corrigan, president and the secretary-treasurer of the Illinois State AFL-CIO, with their needs. The building could not be salvaged without a new roof and immediate structural repairs. This price tag would be a minimum of $100,000.
The State Federation could not foot that bill, but a private donation of $25,000 helped establish a new Labor Temple fund. The Laborers Union and The Operating Engineers have also donated $25,000 each to the cause.
Before the project is done, many more workingmen and women will add their names to the 900 already within the cornerstone. Already there are positive signs that this effort will have a lasting impact on labor in central Illinois. Just as in the beginning, construction trade members have offered volunteer labor, utilizing the planned restoration as part of apprenticeship programs. New union members can learn the old-time work methods and techniques in their trade and, at the same time, learn about their labor heritage. Likewise, there are plans to approach businesses as partners in the enterprise.
Planning for the space is no more than a dream now. Some would like to see a museum devoted to labor's legacy in the building. Perhaps local history and education could become a part of the mix.
One thing is certain. Organized labor will meet again in the house that Labor built in Jacksonville.
David Lasley is active in the Illinois Labor History Society and president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch #80.
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