May 2016 Issue - Labor Issues
April 22, 2016

Restoring the house that Kate — and labor — built

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Kate Mullany house
Caption: The Kate Mullany House in Troy is a National Historic Landmark. Unions are taking an active role in restoring it to its original state. The house was built in 1869. Photo by Liza Frenette.

Bricks and mortar. Old wood. Doorway openings. Piles of sawdust. Plaster.

So many layers to the word "home."

The texture of that word deepens when it's associated with the legacy of a forward-thinking young woman who rolled up her sleeves in the laundry where she worked, recognized an injustice that needed to be righted and rallied women to the front lines of women's labor rights.

Kate Mullany's narrow brick home is in Troy, where she formed the first bonafide all-female union in the country — the Troy Collar Laundry Union. The fledgling unionists, about 300 strong, held their first strike in 1864, lasting one frigid, snowy week in February. In the end, the women who stood up to the bosses received a 25 percent increase in pay and improvements to the quality of the workplace.

In the early industrial revolution of the 19th century, working conditions were horrendous. Laundry workers used caustic cleaners and dangerous steamers. They put in long hours for poor pay. To have workers — especially female workers — step up for their rights was bold.

"She was a rabble rouser," said Paul Cole, director of the American Labor Studies Center, which owns the home.

On May 19, Kate Mullany, an Irish immigrant who came to the U.S. for a better life, will be inducted into Labor's International Hall of Fame at the site of her historic 1869 home. In 2000, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. Her house, a modest three-story brick row house on Eighth Street, is listed on the New York State Women's Heritage Trail and was deemed a National Historic Site in 2008.

"She represents the courage of people in the mid-1800s who went out and risked a lot to organize a union," said Cole.

The ALSC purchased the Mullany home in 2002 with state funds, along with the property next door — a boarded-up business that was torn down to make way for a future Kate Mullany Park. The park will be filled with plants common in the 1870s and will be home to a memorial to honor trade union women pioneers.

Kate lived with her mother, Bridget, and sisters Bridget and Mary in the third-floor apartment of the house in a working-class neighborhood. It comprised a square parlor, a pantry, kitchen, four small bedrooms, back porch and a privy in the back yard. No bathroom, no running water.

Since the ALSC purchased the home, money from competitive grants from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), legislative member items and donations from unions and individuals have paid for intermittent renovations: shoring up a bulging side of the house, repairing the roof, installing six custom-made windows and painting.

The focus is now on restoring the Mullany apartment, three floors up a narrow staircase. This phase of the restoration stems from a $179,790 grant from the state OPRHP. The 25 percent required matching funds are being provided by voluntary labor through the Greater Capital District Building and Construction Trades Council.

Painters Union District Council #9 painted the house. Specialty carpenters, experts in historic preservation, are restoring the stairs and the apartment to its original design through the work of John G. Waite Associates, Architects of Albany.

"I'm restoring the doors," said Tracy Lee, Local 291, who works for Duncan & Cahill, a woman-owned general contractor firm based in Troy. "I'm making headpieces for the jamb, keeping the original wood.

"You can tell it's original," he said, holding the piece out for a layman's inspection. "It's not planed on both sides." Lee is also making baseboards, molding and door casings to match the original.

The old plaster ceiling was ripped down; plumbing added in later years has been removed to return the apartment to its original state. All the architectural work has to meet standards of both the OPRHP and the National Park Service, Cole said.

With no known photos of Kate Mullany, her house is her portrait.

While union carpenters hold up the house, Cole's efforts to preserve Mullany's legacy are as long and steady as a rough-hewn center beam. He hosts annual fundraisers to help pay for operating expenses. The house is open on an appointment basis to individuals and groups, but once the restoration is finished, Cole hopes to welcome more visitors.

"One of the major target groups is schools," said Cole, a high school social studies teacher for 23 years who developed a course on labor history. He was a former president of the Lewiston-Porter United Teachers and served many years in leadership roles in NYSUT, AFT and the state AFL-CIO. "I want to be sure young people know. There are few sites to celebrate the lives and contributions of workers and unions. This will be here for generations of kids."

Delegates at NYSUT's recent Representative Assembly pitched in $3,865.13 for the cause and passed a resolution calling on the statewide union to continue to support restoration efforts. Donations of period furnishings are also being accepted; a box containing detachable shirt collars has been donated, along with an iron with an opening to insert hot coals.

The effort to purchase the house and restore it in stages was helped by former Congressman Michael McNulty and the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan; Hillary Clinton, as first lady, dedicated the house in 1998 as a National Historic Landmark.

"Out of 91 historic sites, it's the only one with a focus on the working class, the union theme, Irish immigrants and women trade unionists," said Cole.
NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale called Mullany "a true New York State heroine. The house represents Kate and the importance of the work she stood for, and how it resonates as a core value of the American workplace."