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Thursday, July 17, 2003 02:20 pm

Sticking to the union

The AFL-CIO saves one of the nation’s oldest labor temples

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Looking at the building a block from downtown Jacksonville, you might wonder why this eyesore is still standing. An ordinary three-story red brick box at 228 South Mauvaisterre, the Jacksonville Labor Temple has boarded windows and a padlocked door that might be opened by a mild summer storm.

But despite its disheveled appearance, this building has a proud past. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it's one of the first labor temples ever built in this country. A cornerstone near the peeling front door contains the names of the 900 union members working in Jacksonville at the time of its construction.

In the early 1800s, Jacksonville had one steam flour mill, one factory for cotton yarn, one distillery, two fabric carding plants, one tannery, and three brickyards. When the Northern Cross Railroad came through in 1838, the demand for laborers--and the need for representation--increased. Pay for the "pick-and-shovel men" on the railroad was "$19 per month and eight jiggers of whiskey per day," according to the book Morgan County--The Twentieth Century by Robert W. Dalton. In 1892, after a meeting of newly created unions, the Carpenters, Bricklayers, Plasterers, Cigar Makers, Tinners, Bakers, Painters, Hod Carriers, and Car Builders coalesced to form the Jacksonville Trades and Labor Assembly.

Many meetings in temporary sites later, the unions constructed the temple in 1904. "The Trades and Labor Assembly members were not very happy with their rented quarters and the present building is a direct result of this discontent," Dalton writes.

According to the building's historical designation, it was to be used as a union headquarters and recreation center. The cigar-makers, numbering more than 50, comprised the largest union at one time. Over the years, the building housed a wide variety of unions. "The unions that the temple first serviced were very different and specific, as that was the need of the time," says Al Pieper, president of the Springfield/Central Illinois Trades Council.

The temple served as an office and meeting space for union locals until the mid-1980s. The last unions housed by the temple before it fell to disrepair represented carpenters.

Why would Jacksonville unions abandon such a cornerstone of their history? "The unions started to move on from the temple to start building their own headquarters," Pieper says.

When the building was first erected, it was considered more attractive than most other buildings of the day. The interior ceilings featured "a bas-relief design of flowers, stems, and leaves" that crept across three walls. "The craftsmen tinted the patterns against the plain background, making the blossoms various colors," Dalton writes.

The building also had a primitive intercom system. A network of "speaking tubes" extended through all three stories so that "a person could by heard on the other floors," Dalton writes.

Today the building has fallen into such disrepair that it was scheduled for demolition until the Illinois AFL-CIO and the Jacksonville Central Illinois Labor Temple Trust Committee purchased it in April. They plan to use volunteer labor and private donations to restore the temple.

Peggy Greenfield, office manager of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said some unions will use the restoration as a training site for their rookies. "The building is in terrible shape," Greenfield says. "Because of that and our work being purely volunteer, it is not clear when this restoration will be completed."

The future of the restored structure is not clear. "It seems that the building will be used as an office building for local unions and hopefully part will become a labor museum of some sort," Pieper says. "But we are just focusing on getting the job done right now."

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