A façade of a façade of a façade
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HistoryJeannette: A good example of everyday

A façade of a façade of a façade

A building, a photograph, a dream, a poem, a friendship

"Jeannette — and a Jewish chicken,” from Frieda LaVictoire’s 1970 collection of Poetry, “Tsu Zingen un Zogen” (Image courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives)
"Jeannette — and a Jewish chicken,” from Frieda LaVictoire’s 1970 collection of Poetry, “Tsu Zingen un Zogen” (Image courtesy of Rauh Jewish Archives)

I like old buildings with aging renovations — the more layers the better.

The largest synagogues in Pittsburgh all fit this description. Each expansion reflects the energy of a different era. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Congregation downtown, where architect Harry Levine wove two previous iterations of the old synagogue into the current sanctuary — three eras in one small room.

Fun examples of this architectural phenomenon can be found all over Pittsburgh. The definitive example locally might be the CVS pharmacy on Fifth Avenue downtown.

If you study the facade from the opposite sidewalk, you will find an assemblage of four distinct and totally incongruous components, arranged like the jumbled tiles of a sliding puzzle. There are screaming gothic mascaron, tall Corinthian columns, slick mid-century tiles, and an expanse of aluminum siding in a depleted brown resembling muddy snow.

My current favorite example of layered quality is 618 Clay Ave. in Jeannette. Today the building is home to Colors Birthday Party Place. The façade is a zany, blinking grid of primary colors beneath a blaring marquee. Squint through all those colors, though, and you can instantly tell that the underlying building is from an earlier era in town history.

The LaVictoire family briefly lived at 618 Clay Ave. in Jeannette, seen here in 1990. (Photo via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS PA-6105)
There is a historic photograph of this building from 1990. The basic structure is mostly unchanged but the colors have yet to be added. The windows of the first-floor storefront are pasted over with wrinkled butcher paper. One upstairs window is cracked. Another has no glass at all. Instead, an old door turned sideways has been nailed over the opening.

This photograph was created as part of the Historic American Buildings Survey. The National Park Service began this ongoing record of American architecture in 1933 and has since created records of tens of thousands of buildings across the country. The survey includes some of the most renowned structures in the country, as well as thousands of examples of everyday architecture, including many buildings throughout Jeannette.

Jeannette was a good example of everyday. It followed a trajectory common throughout industrial America. It was rural until the late 1880s, when prospectors discovered natural gas. The local energy source brought glass production to the town. Jeannette at one point had seven glass factories. With the industry came the railroad. With the railroad came people, who came from all over, seeking work. By the 1990s, though, thousands had left.

If you review the HABS documentation files for this location, you can find a history of the building and its occupants. The building was erected no later than 1895 and went through several owners until 1913, when it was sold to Avigdor and Miriam LaVictoire.

The LaVictoires were a Jewish couple who came to Western Pennsylvania from Bialystok at the turn of the century. They struggled for stability, but their daughter Frieda LaVictoire eventually earned a degree from the Pitt School of Dentistry in 1922.

As she was becoming a respected dentist in Pittsburgh, LaVictoire harbored a dream. In a 1968 oral history with the National Council of Jewish Women, the interviewer asked what LaVictoire would do, if she could start over. “I would write,” she said. “And teach.”

Dentistry was already an impressive dream for a Jewish immigrant woman from a small town in the early 1920s. But writing seemed beyond that dream, into the realm of fantasy.

LaVictoire did write, just not professionally. She published a collection of Yiddish poetry in 1970 called “Tsu Zingen un Zogen,” which she translated as “Who Sing and Spring.”

The volume includes two parts. The first is a selection of classic English verse translated into Yiddish — William Cullen Bryant, Lewis Carroll, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others.

The second section contains biographical poems, largely chronicling the upheavals of immigration. In “Going On An Errand,” LaVictoire recalls the discomfort she felt as a girl of 12, being sent on a weekly Thursday trolley ride to the Ludwig section of Greensburg — all alone, save for a “smart aleck chicken” bound for the Shabbos table.

In the poem, LaVictoire describes her embarrassment as the other passengers snicker at the chicken, her guilt when the shochet slaughters the bird, her somber relief on the ride home with the silent package of meat in her lap, and finally her delight when she arrives in Jeannette to find her friend and neighbor Alice Holland waiting to walk her home.

The Hollands were American-born migrants. According to the 1920 census, the parents Clifford and Mary Holland were both from Ohio but their three children at home were born in different states: Illinois in 1900, Indiana in 1903, and Kansas in 1906. The family eventually came to Jeannette, where Clifford worked as a cutter in a local glass factory and lived on Clay Avenue, past Sixth Street, among newly arriving Jewish immigrants.

In “Jeannette — and a Jewish Chicken,” LaVictoire recalls a conversation with her friend Alice about the rigors of keeping kosher: “Alice says it’s a shame to go clear to Greensburg just to kill an old chicken ‘her pap could do.’/ Tastes just as good when he chops off the head with an ax. It’s lots of trouble to be a Jew!/ We giggle and compare the pile of trouble it’s to be a Holy Roller Evangelist!/ And then we’re home, across the street from each other, smile-part. For a week, Thursday chicken doesn’t exist.”

You could imagine this encounter spinning off toward ugliness, but the tone stays so light — two kids reveling in the oddities of their respective cultures. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I think a familiarity with change gave each girl some affection toward the other. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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