A former boardinghouse in St. Louis that played a role in the birth of the country’s largest electrical union is being transformed into a $6 million museum by local members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
In 1891, lineman Henry Miller and other St. Louisans unsatisfied with high mortality rates and low pay for electrical workers formed a national labor union known as the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said the IBEW’s spokesman Mark Brueggenjohann.
The union that ultimately became the IBEW is now based in Washington and has 725,000 active and retired workers.
“The whole idea of the IBEW was started in St. Louis,” Brueggenjohann said.
Miller was living at the brick boardinghouse, at 2728 Franklin Avenue (now Martin Luther King Drive), just west of downtown, where the union’s founding 10 delegates met and held their first convention.
Within the first year under Miller’s leadership as president, locals were chartered in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities. Miller died in a work-related accident in 1896.
IBEW Local 1, which has 4,800 active members in St. Louis and 2,000 retirees, last year bought the building for $53,680. Construction is underway to create a replica of Miller’s room on the second floor and a bar on the ground level. The bar, built from wood taken from the building’s floor joists, will allow electricians to have a beer on the same spot the union’s founders met.
Pride in their trade and remembering the history of their union drove the museum project.
“We’ll be able to walk on the same floors and touch the walls where it all started,” said Tim Murray, a Local 1 business representative.
On an adjacent lot, a Founders Park will soon be added with 10 utility poles. Lights will illuminate statutes of linemen on each of the poles representing the union’s founders. To pay for the project, electricians from around the U.S. and Canada are donating funds to have personalized bricks or granite benches added in the park with their name or local union.
On Thursday, workers were scraping off old mortar from bricks taken from elsewhere in the building that will replace a facade added in the 1920s that’s being removed.
While the project is preserving some old materials, the interior is being wired with modern features, including LED lighting that will serve as a showcase for electricians’ work, said supervisor Dale Roth of Sachs Electric, the project’s general contractor.
Other contractors working on the renovation include Miller & Maack General Contractors, mechanical contractor Murphy Co., St. Charles Brick Co. and B & K Tuckpointing Co.
Construction is slated to be completed in September when thousands of IBEW delegates meet in St. Louis for the union’s convention commemorating its 125th anniversary. When completed, the museum will be open to the public for tours.
Members of IBEW Local 1 first became aware of the building three years ago and dug up archival documents confirming Miller’s address. The building had been vacant for years.
Local 1’s business manager Frank Jacobs said it’s lucky the building survived, since neighboring buildings on the block, which is in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, have since been torn down.
“There are not a lot of preserved buildings nearby,” Jacobs said. “We’re very fortunate to have this piece of our history available to be preserved.”
The union plans to use the property for meetings and events for its local members and retirees and for union electricians from around the country to visit.
“The International Brotherhood has a lot of members who travel across the country both for work and vacations and they can make this a stopping point,” Jacobs said.
Electricians from around the country have already begun stopping by the construction site to take a look. Floor support beams that will later be covered show dozens of signatures from IBEW workers who visited the property in recent months, including Marc Flynn from Local 40 in California, and a bumper sticker from Local 1439 in St. Louis that reads: “We keep the lights on.”