Concordia Club sells historic building in Oakland to Pitt
July 21, 2009 8:00 AM
Current photos by Lake Fong; others from the Rauh Jewish Archives and the Post-G
Scenes from the Concordia club, clockwise from top left: Concordia Club members socializing in 1974; prominent members Leon Falk Jr. and Edgar J. Kaufmann; the grand staircase today; a 1924 post card touting the club's 50th anniversary and sponsored by Kramer's restaurant; the O'Hara Street entrance today; the grand staircase in 1916; member Barney Dreyfuss, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
By Sally Kalson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's the end of an era for the Concordia Club, which for more than a century was the place to be for prominent members of Pittsburgh's Jewish society.
In the face of declining membership and a shortage of cash, club members voted Thursday to approve the sale of their historic building on O'Hara Street in Oakland. The University of Pittsburgh will pay $2.1 million for the structure that the club has occupied since 1913. Its previous headquarters was on the North Side, where the club was founded in 1874, the same era as the Duquesne Club.
The future of the organization is uncertain. Concordia board member Foster Goldman, who negotiated the sale, said members might decide to use the proceeds to buy or rent another facility. Alternatively, they might join in with another club, or dissolve the organization and distribute the proceeds among the members.
Meanwhile, the club will continue its normal activities as late as mid-December, when the sale is expected to close. Pitt has not said what it will do with the building, which sits in the middle of its campus. (In 2005, Pitt bought the 81-year-old University Club for $3.1 million and, after extensive renovations, turned it into a faculty club).
"It's a shame that it's come to this," said Mr. Goldman. "My parents were members, and I've been using the club all my life. I hate to see it go, but given the situation it's the right decision."
At its peak, he said, the club had close to 300 equity members, plus associate and junior members. As of May, equity members numbered only 147.
Formed 135 years ago by German Jews, mostly members of the Rodef Shalom Congregation, the Concordia Club's purpose was "to promote social and literary entertainment among its members," according to its charter.
The club quickly became a prestigious gathering place for the movers and shakers of the time. Judge Josiah Cohen was the primary founder and first president, and the membership rolls over the years included Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, industrialist Leon Falk Jr. and department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann. Eventually, the club began including eastern European Jews, and in more recent years membership was open without regard to gender, race, ethnicity or religion. Members held on to their reform Jewish identity while also assimilating into American society -- the club's Golden Anniversary Song Book in 1924 contains the lyrics to "Annie Rooney," "Oh, Susanna," "Sweet Adeline" and "Jingle Bells." The dining room has long been open on the Sabbath, the menu features such nonkosher fare as shrimp and scallops, and clam bakes remain popular events.
When Concordia moved into its grand new building on O'Hara Street, it was one of city's most opulent. The china, crystal and linens were elegant; the flower arrangements profuse.
"The new structure is entirely complete with billiard rooms, banquet hall, rest and lounging parlors, reading quarters and sleeping accommodations," said a 1915 article in Jewish Criterion. "Not a day passes without some function."
Later on the environs became even more impressive. The Fort Pitt Hotel at 10th Street and Penn Avenue, Downtown, was demolished in 1967, and some of its distinctive, elaborate wood paneling was rescued by the club and installed in its interior.
The building has been the setting of countless parties, weddings, Passover seders, bar and bat mitzvot, birthday and anniversary celebrations. Men met there for smokers, women for bridge games and teas. Many thousands of glasses have clinked in its rooms, and many thousands of cigars have been fired up.
Concordia members attended its lectures, plays, concerts and games, including bowling in the alleys long since removed. There were Purim parties for children, Halloween dances for young adults, formal balls on Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, even dances on Christmas Eve.
The club staged periodic frolics featuring song parodies written and performed by members on the expansive, curtained stage in the ballroom. Women were not allowed as full members until some time after 1972, a situation that Harriet Franklin protested in one of the follies songs: "I am Woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore. But Concordia thinks that I don't exist. Don't use the bar is their request, til the sun sets in the west ...."
At a time when few good restaurants existed, Concordia's dining room offered such delicacies as (from its Golden Anniversary menu) sole amandine and guinea fowl supreme, artichoke hearts and asparagus vinaigrette. In more recent years, it was famous for its shaved chocolate cake (see recipe above).
In its heyday, it would have been difficult to imagine the club losing relevance for its members. But the barriers that kept ethnic groups apart started to fall, along with the need or desire for parallel social and business constructs. In addition, Oakland began losing its cultural amenities -- baseball, the symphony and the historical society moved elsewhere, and the Syria Mosque was razed.
"Women work, Pitt football games moved to the North Side, doctors offices moved to satellite locations," said longtime member Barbara Mendlowitz, and competition for family time kept growing. "Children today have so many activities, you can't do everything."
Mr. Goldman ticked off other factors affecting private clubs in general.
"Blue laws" that used to prohibit the public sale of alcohol on Sundays didn't apply to private clubs. Also, there were very few good restaurants, "so if you didn't belong to a club you didn't eat very well and you didn't have a social life," he said.
Many of the business advantages to private club membership no longer exist.
"Your firm could pay your dues and deduct them. They can't do that anymore. You could deduct 100 percent of your meals for entertaining business clients. Now it's only 50 percent."
For all these reasons, he said, "Our membership is aging and younger people today have other agendas. They don't seem to be interested."
Thursday's vote to sell the building wasn't unanimous, he said, but it passed by a good margin. Most members saw the sale as the best option under the circumstances.