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The history of 1199SEIU—and American labor—is etched on the walls of the union’s new Adjaye Associates–designed member spaces

The house that essential workers built

The history of 1199SEIU—and American labor—is etched on the walls of the union’s new Adjaye Associates–designed member spaces

Six weeks before his assassination in early April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a short but galvanizing address to members of union local 1199SEIU, New York City. Referring to himself as a “fellow 1199-er,” King lauded the union’s reputation for progressivism in the wider context of American labor, whose conservative elements bristled at integration campaigns and supported the Vietnam War. “I would suggest that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years,” King told 1199 members, “our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice.”

Select quotations from King’s “The Other America” speech, as it came to be known, are memorialized on the walls of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East’s new member spaces, located at the base of 498 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Called out in brass lettering against a largely monochromatic backdrop, the quotes quietly reinforce 1199’s self-identification as “the authentic conscience of the labor movement,” as King put it. Giant likenesses of pivotal labor and social justice leaders—from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X—are more conspicuous; an effigy of King spans three of the wing’s four stories. Period photographs of picket lines and street demonstrations have also had their dimensions enlarged.

“You can walk up and down the four floors and understand what we’ve gone through to get to where we are today, through all the various struggles, and sheroes and heroes who have played a very important part in those struggles,” said 1199SEIU president George Gresham.

The 16,500-square-foot member spaces were designed by the New York office of Adjaye Associates, whose principal, the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, accepted the commission after Gresham cold-called him in 2018. Gresham asked Adjaye to meet him at his office—then at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center on 43rd Street, the union’s erstwhile home—in order to initiate him in the union’s history and its current needs. A growth in membership over the decades had forced 1199 to find spillover space for its operations, which had the effect of shunting the union’s organizational apparatus from its benefits offices. Adjaye would need to unify these two branches under one roof on Seventh Avenue.

Early on in the talks, Gresham tipped Adjaye off to the union’s vast photo archive—a large cache of black-and-white photographs, many depicting the union’s activities in the civil rights era—which was beginning to be digitized. Adjaye was intrigued. “I was inspired to bring [the union’s] history into this new building,” he recalled. “I felt that the best way forward was to print the images onto the surfaces of the walls.”

By chance, Adjaye was fresh from a trip to Mexico, where he toured the Cerámica Suro tile factory in Guadalajara with its owner, José Noé Suro. The photographs, Noé Suro later relayed to Adjaye, could be expanded and printed on tiles at little cost to their fidelity. Working with digital files of the photographs, Noé Suro’s team projected a 2-inch-by-2-inch grid onto each image, accounting for the tile dimensions, as well as 2 millimeters of grout. The process, which involved touching up the images, ceramic printing, glazing, firing, and laying the tiles in a “mesh” for easy installation in New York, took eight months. “I wanted to make something that was more embedded in the nature of the materiality itself,” Adjaye explained. “And when the images are applied to the ceramic, a permanent materiality is embedded within them—it’s incredible!”

photography of decorative tilework in a contemporary architectural setting for 1199SEIU
The architectural repertoire is limited to a few elements and materials, including smoky structural concrete cladding and barrel vaults that ripple across the ceilings of all four floors. (© Dror Baldinger)

Gresham had hoped that the spaces would have the “feeling of a museum rather than an office building,” and in line with that desire, Adjaye opted for a refined and restrained material palette. Terrazzo and travertine for the flooring and smoky GFRC panels affixed to the structural columns and piers predominate, though there are alluring flourishes of black marble and especially brass, which gets picked up in the aforementioned quotations, the trim on the glass guardrails, and the banding around doors and other thresholds. (A sculptural water fountain is the most fulsome application of the alloyed metal.) Concrete barrel vaults, with LED strips inserted into the intermediate channels, ripple overhead. Taken as a whole, the design is discreet and unobtrusive because “the images are so powerful that you don’t need anything else,” Adjaye said.

In addition to enrollment and training offices and clinical consultation rooms, the project features an art gallery and a 600-seat auditorium designed by Adjaye. The provision of cultural offerings under the mantle of Bread and Roses—an age-old labor slogan that acknowledged the importance of attending to all aspects of workers’ development, not just their economic needs—has historically set 1199 apart from other unions, noted Gresham. It was his mentor Moe Foner who as vice president in the 1960s launched the union’s cultural arm, which produced plays and other engagements at all the union’s hospitals. The Bread and Roses program quickly earned cachet, thanks to support from celebrities including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Harry Belafonte. Belafonte, now 93, was one of the first visitors whom Gresham gave a tour of the spaces when they opened in July.

Not all of the union’s heritage survived the move to the new headquarters on Seventh Avenue perfectly intact, however. A 1970 Anton Refregier mosaic mural above the entrance to the Labor Center signaled 1199’s civic and political commitments to office workers and other passersby. Scenes depicting the union’s Black and Puerto Rican members at work and at rest surround a central panel whose message of racial solidarity is embellished with a Douglass quote, “If there is no struggle, there can be no progress.”

But as soon as Adjaye Associates began looking into de-installing and relocating the mural, designers discovered that they could not do so without damaging it. After conferring with the union, the architectural team elected to reproduce Refregier’s poignant work on the first floor of the new members’ spaces.

“This was a very hard decision,” Adjaye admitted while pointing to the exacting methods of replication, up to and including the procurement of the original tesserae. “In a way, for me it’s like the Roman bust of Hercules pretending to be the original from Greece, but actually it’s a cast,” the architect said. “The replication process we implemented continues this idea of remaking, but faithfully.”

photography of decorative tilework in a contemporary architectural setting for 1199SEIU
The largest tile work portrays Martin Luther King Jr. (© Dror Baldinger)

Remaining faithful to the union’s roots—and revealing how far back they go—was always imperative, Gresham noted. “I wanted people, particularly our young members, to understand the legacy of 1199, and I think that was amazingly illustrated,” he said.

According to Adjaye, the project prompted him to reconsider the role that institutions play in contemporary life. “We sometimes dismiss institutions because we don’t know their histories and what they have gone through to get to this particular moment. I’m not saying they are all good and we should follow them blindly, but it is also important to understand the long arc of these institutions.”

As regards 1199, a union that has made huge gains for American healthcare workers, “[t]he plurality of issues they have [historically] dealt with is literally reflected” in the architecture, Adjaye said. “You did well if you made a decision [to embrace social justice] 50 years ago that is still relevant to our world now.”

This article appeared as the feature in AN Interior’s fall 2020 issue.

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