Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: On the chopping block, this building gave Pittsfield a rich cultural history

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The City of Pittsfield will soon raze six buildings that have been vacant and dilapidated, some for decades. In 1968 I was a volunteer in a community tutorial program for underserved youth that was held in one of these structures at 173 Robbins Ave. Only recently I realized what a community gathering spot this building was for many of Pittsfield's cultural and ethnic populations.

I knew it had a Masonic emblem on the front above the door, but never saw Masons there. This brick school-like structure was located among residential houses and I was always curious about its history.

The building was constructed in 1925 at a cost of $25,000 to become the home of the recently formed Hebrew Alliance. Over the next 21 years it was bustling with meetings, social events, religious school, fundraisers, speakers, dances and benevolent activities to help immigrants fortunate to escape the Holocaust.

Organizations such as Hadassah, B'nai Brith, Jewish War Veterans, Pittsfield Community Hebrew School and the Jewish Community Center (JCC) called the building home.

With the post-war growth of Pittsfield's Jewish community, a larger facility would be needed. In 1946, the organization, known as the Jewish Community Center, moved into its newly purchased building at 235 East St., vacating the Robbins Ave. facility.

The new location had been the home of the late Clemens Coogan, past president of City Savings Bank.

In January 1947, the Syrian American Club bought the Robbins Avenue building for $10,000 and it immediately began holding its meetings, social events and fundraisers there. Wedding receptions, speakers and card parties were popular events.

Families from Syria and Lebanon founded the organization in 1912 and helped many immigrants settle in the area. But the group did not have its own building until this purchase. When members were about to begin a fundraising drive to build a home, the leaders found the Robbins Avenue facility.

In 1948 the organization's name became the Syrian-Lebanese American Club. The group used the facility until 1954 and decided to sell the building and continue its meetings and events at restaurants and other locales.

The St. John's Masonic Lodge #10, an African-American Masonic organization dating back to 1898 in Pittsfield, bought the Robbins Avenue building for $12,000 in 1954. The lodge opened its doors to the community.

In 1960, a corps of volunteers rehabilitated the building, restoring the foundation and refurbishing and decorating the interior. The edifice became the center for meetings, dances, speakers, oratorical contests, NAACP gatherings and civil rights activities.

In 1964, it served as a home for AME Zion church services. In 1968, the tutorial program was conducted in the building and in 1970 one of the area's first drug counseling programs briefly operated there.

However, as organized clubs and lodges declined in membership throughout the country, many, such as Pittsfield's St. John's Masonic Lodge, had difficulty maintaining their buildings.

The Masonic Grand Lodge for Massachusetts had to take over the building and in 1993 sold it to the former Association for Basic Community Development, a state-funded community development corporation.

Over past two decades the building deteriorated to the point at which rehab was no longer an option.

Soon, the building will be demolished for an estimated cost of $30,000 to $40,000 — more than the price to build it.

It is important to remember the role 173 Robbins Ave. held in the city's cultural history. None of the former organizations or their replacements have such active centers as in their heydays on Robbins Avenue.

They were all important players in helping the community become the great culturally diverse city Pittsfield has become.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." For more information on the project and books, go to

www.berkshirecarousel.com.



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