Filed Under Institutional

Irene Kaufmann Settlement

Born from one family’s tragedy, the Irene Kaufmann Settlement provided comfort and community to thousands of Hill District families.

A Refuge in the New Industrial City

Industrial growth between the 1890s and 1920s transformed Pittsburgh’s population. Predominantly poor, non-English-speaking immigrants of diverse cultures poured into densely-packed, dilapidated neighborhoods that were often unprepared to provide basic needs.  Settlement houses like IKS were part of a national movement to assimilate them by providing education and social services. The Hill was the first neighborhood for many, but especially Jewish immigrants to late-nineteenth-century Pittsburgh. The first Jewish communities formed on the Hill in the 1870s and grew from 25,000 to 50,000 between 1907 and 1920. Immigrants could find social services at the Kingsley Association, established in 1893 (at Bedford Avenue and Fullerton Street in the Hill District), or the Columbian Council School, founded in 1896 by the Pittsburgh Section of the National Council of Jewish Women on Centre Ave. The IKS grew from the Columbian Council School and from IKS grew the Hill House.

Henry, Theresa, and Irene Kaufmann & the IKS

Irene was the only child of Kaufmann Store proprietor Henry and wife Theresa Kaufmann. While on vacation in late July 1907, 19-year-old Irene consumed a bottle of carbolic acid, a poisonous common household disinfectant, and died within minutes. Media reported Irene’s death as accidental, but later testimony suggests the death to be a suicide. In memory of their daughter, Henry and Theresa Kaufmann donated $250,000 to establish the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, a neighborhood hub that would nurture generations of immigrants.

Kaufmann’s donation transformed the Columbian School’s single room on Miller Street into the Main Settlement House at 1835 Centre Ave. The new location supported social and cultural activities as well as health and well-being campaigns for Hill District youth and families of diverse ages, backgrounds, and nationalities. By 1919, employees and volunteers managed a gymnasium, public bath, laundry, and summer camp, and supported seventeen other organizations under the settlement’s roof. Staff facilitated an array of community programs like immigrant Americanization classes, youth classes in art, drama, and music, and provided a range of direct services like nursing and childcare support for mothers, free milk, and kindergartens for school-aged children. In 1926, over 100 clubs welcomed 24,000 visitors.

Neighborhood Faces and Spaces Change Over Time

In the 1920s, Congress passed laws severely restricting new immigration from southern and eastern Europe, the same native regions of many immigrants living in the Hill. Simultaneously, growing industrial opportunities in predominantly northern cities attracted millions of southern Black migrants. By 1950, approximately 82,000 African American residents called Pittsburgh home, comprising nearly fifteen percent of the city’s population.  Due to racial discrimination in the city’s housing market, most of these Black migrants were concentrated in the Hill. Lifelong Hill resident Rich Brean recalled that when his father started working at Jay Drug Company at 1801 Centre Ave. in 1938, the employees and customers were predominantly Jewish; two decades later, the store’s employees and customers were mostly Black.

By World War II immigration restriction, urban growth, and racial discrimination produced neighborhood demographic change in the Hill. Working-class African-American residents increasingly outnumbered the neighborhood’s Jewish population, as the latter were able to move to more desirable neighborhoods without the same degree of racial discrimination. Changing neighborhood faces rippled across the neighborhood spaces that provided social services. In 1956, the IKS was renamed the Anna B. Heldman Community Center and in 1964 merged with the Soho Community House (an Oakland settlement) and the Hill City Youth Municipality to form the Hill House Association. The IKS consolidated its operations into the  Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and later merged with other Jewish community organizations to form the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh in 1974.

Hill House was a social services organization and cultural institution that provided daycare, senior services, parenting classes, medical and dental care, music lessons, and cultural events to community members. Unlike the IKS and other predecessors, however, the Hill House was managed and operated by Black community members, who were most knowledgeable about the needs of the community and the problems resulting from systemic racial discrimination. Faced with several economic challenges, Hill House concluded a half-century of service to the Hill community in 2019.

Images

View of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement The main settlement building on the right was demolished in 1964; the theater seen on the left side of the image is today known as Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium. Source: Oliver M. Kaufmann Photograph Collection of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, 1912-1969, University of Pittsburgh Archives Creator: Irene Kaufmann Settlement Date: 1940
Planting Day A boy from the Hill, participating in the Better Neighborhood Contest, tends his garden for the camera. Urban beautification projects promoting gardening and other neighborhood improvements were a regular offering of IKS. Source: Oliver M. Kaufmann Photograph Collection of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, University of Pittsburgh Archives Creator: Irene Kaufmann Settlement Date: 1940
Kids in the Garden A group of children pose in their garden as part of the Better Neighborhood Contest, which encouraged gardening and other beautification projects Source: Oliver M. Kaufmann Photograph Collection of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, 1912-1969, University of Pittsburgh Archives Creator: Irene Kaufmann Settlement Date: 1940
Membership Map Settlement houses like IKS kept careful records about their neighborhoods and the people they served. This 1917 map documented where members lived. The text in the lower left corner indicates more than 2700 children among the members. Source: Oliver M. Kaufmann Photograph Collection of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, 1912-1969, University of Pittsburgh Archives Creator: Irene Kaufmann Settlement Date: 1917
Soapbox Derby Winner In addition to social services, the Kaufmann Settlement also sponsored recreational events and activities for neighborhood youth. Soapbox derby races were especially popular, and took place near Webster Avenue and Kirkpatrick Street. This image features IKS soapbox derby winner Demosthenes Pikros and spectators. The Post-Gazette reported that Pikros completed the race in 25 seconds. Source: Oliver M. Kaufmann Photograph Collection of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, 1912-1969, University of Pittsburgh Archives Creator: Irene Kaufmann Settlement Date: June 30, 1940

Location

1835 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

“Irene Kaufmann Settlement,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/40.