A time machine would aid my work tremendously. In a flash I could visit any moment in time where documentation is lacking. I’d rescue records from disposal and escort them back to the present for all to enjoy. What sorts of things would I collect? Letters of introduction carried by peddlers in the 1830s, minutes of the warring congregations of the 1850s, love letters penned by immigrants in the 1880s, the burnt 1890 census, and so on.
OK, let’s temper the fantasy a bit. Say this time machine could only accommodate observation. No souvenirs allowed. What era would I most want to see for myself?
I would choose the 1920s. In the history of Western Pennsylvania Jewry, no run of years provides quite as much variety in individual or communal experience as that decade.
The population was at its largest and most sprawling. The 60,000 or so Jewish people living within the city limits were spread across four large communities — the Hill District, Oakland, Squirrel Hill/Greenfield and East Liberty — and perhaps a dozen smaller ones in neighborhoods like the South Side, Beechview, Beltzhoover, Hazelwood, Homewood, Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, the Strip District, Deutschtown and Manchester. The Jewish population of the hundreds of towns surrounding Pittsburgh was growing even faster than the city, doubling over the decade and likely approaching 30,000 people by 1930.
And yet, this seemingly ever-swelling Jewish community was on the verge of stalling, as the immigration quotas of the 1920s eliminated the chief factor for population growth.
The community was religiously diverse. Synagogues ruled, with nearly 80 throughout the region. You could find ethnic variations in Jewish worship and many denominational experiments. But you could also find proud Jews who wanted nothing to do with religion.
It was also economically diverse. There was incredible wealth and dramatic mobility, but there were also pockets of considerable and persistent Jewish poverty. These became increasingly dire as the Great Depression fell over the city and then the whole country.
A hidden figure connects a lot of these trends. It was not a rabbi, nor an educator, nor a philanthropist. His name was Herschel Miller, and he was a general contractor.
He started H. Miller & Sons around 1890, first building houses around the Hill District and incrementally assuming larger and more significant projects over the next 40 years.
His first big commission came in 1913, went he built the new Concordia Club on Ohara Street in Oakland. Earning the trust of the local Jewish elite, the projects came quick. He built an addition to Westmoreland Country Club in 1917. That same year, he built the original Hebrew Institute in the Hill District, which was funded through a seed grant by Louis I. Aaron of Rodef Shalom Congregation. The United Hebrew Relief Association hired Miller in 1921 to build a novel Jewish affordable housing development in Oakland.
A few years later, B’nai Israel congregation hired Miller to build its new synagogue along Negley Avenue in East Liberty. In the fashion of the day, Miller commissioned construction photographs, including the one seen here, to mark his work-in-progress.
The end of the 1920s brought a rush of activity. Miller built Taylor Allderdice High School in 1927, the new Montefiore Hospital and the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House auditorium in 1928, and was about to start on the Congregation Beth Shalom sanctuary when he died in January 1930. Throughout that three-year stretch, he was also building new warehouses and office towers downtown and model homes out in the suburbs.
The Great Depression ended this communal construction boom, just as it slowed construction throughout the region. The next boom was not until the mid-1950s.
A lot of Miller’s best-known buildings survive, and a surprising number are still being used by their original owners for their original purposes. In the absence of living voices, these buildings tell us about a turning point in local Jewish history, almost a century ago.
Correction: Writing about the early days of Yeshiva Schools last month, I included a postcard sent to a “Mr. Fogel” in early 1942. Meyer Fogel donated the postcard to us in 1992, and I assumed that it had been sent to him. But given that he was serving in the Army in early 1942, the postcard was more likely addressed to his father, Joseph Fogel. pjc
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.