On Pius Street on the South Side Slopes, there is an old building being converted into a bar/restaurant. The sign above says "WBU #6." What was this organization? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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On Pius Street on the South Side Slopes, there is an old building being converted into a bar/restaurant. The sign above says "WBU #6." What was this organization?

Question submitted by: Steve Willing, Seven Fields

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To outsiders, this building has long been a source of mystery, a nondescript structure with the not-very-descriptive sign you describe. To the structure's neighbors, meanwhile, the building has been ground zero in a legal battle that went all the way up to Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court last year.

 

 

Thanks to that case, Lench vs. Zoning Board of Adjustment, we now have the answer to a pressing legal question: If a building has a bar but not a kitchen, and someone wants to turn the site into a restaurant, does that "constitute the natural expansion of [a] prior nonconforming use" under zoning laws? (The answer -- just in case Harriet Miers is brushing up for her Supreme Court nomination hearings -- is yes. I think.) And also thanks to that case, we have a solid outline of the building's history.

 

As the court record notes, WBU #6 was established in 1922 by the "Workingmen's Benefits Union," which sold the building 80 years later. It housed a bar, a connected apartment for the building's caretaker, and a social hall for meetings and dances with live music on the weekends.

 

As the name suggests, the Workingmen's Benefits Union offered a kind of worker's comp before the government -- or anyone else -- did. Such organizations were common in the early 20th century, a time before government began regulating workplace safety, when industrial accidents were frequent and fatal. They were also the times before Social Security and company-provided benefits, the times when the death of a breadwinner spelled financial ruin for his widow and children. (Or, as the Republicans call them, the good old days.) Organizations like the WBU sprung up as self-insurance organizations: Members paid premiums so their survivors would have something to subsist on, or at least something to pay for a decent burial.

 

The earliest reference I could find to the WBU dates back to 1908, to the founding of a chapter in Ambridge. "Its main object," notes the book Economy of Old and Ambridge of Today, "is to have each member carry a small insurance [policy] ... which insures a sick benefit of $6 per week."

 

Which leaves the question, what kind of insurer comes with its own barroom? If you're like most people, paying your insurance -- let alone shelling out an advance for your funeral -- doesn't sound like a particularly social occasion. I mean, who goes out drinking with their Allstate guy? Doing so risks a jump in your car-insurance premiums, if nothing else. 

 

In those days, however, these organizations were social clubs as much as anything -- hence the "lodge numbers," such as WBU #6. Many were organized along ethnic lines, with names such as the Slovene National Benefit Society. Especially for recent European immigrants, notes the Heinz History Center's guide Points in Time, "As well as membership benefits, ethnic fraternals offered immigrants social and cultural support." Members were given a connection to the old country, and a helping hand in the new world. The fraternal lodge provided you with a social life, and gave your family a financial cushion after your death.

 

The next time you find yourself perusing old photos of steelworker funerals (which is the sort of thing you end up doing when you go out drinking with the Allstate guy, by the way), look to see if the mourners are wearing ribbons on their jackets. The ribbons look like prizes from the county fair, but they identify the fraternal lodge to which the mourners, and the deceased, belong. The photos capture the way in which these organizations provided members with both financial and moral support.

 

Though they're less vital now than they were in the early 1900s, fraternal organizations including the Slovene National Benefit Society still exist. There's even a Workingmen's Benefits Union #4 listed in the phone book, although no one there answered my calls. Let's hope that nothing happened to them or, if it did, that they at least have a good insurance policy.

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