Detroit's Finnish Hall, and the Battle of 14th Street

On 14th Street just outside Detroit's glitzy New Center area stands the old Finnish Workers' Society Hall, in what used to be a small Finnish-American enclave, although I presume no Finns still live anywhere near here. Despite its plain appearance, this old auditorium was the scene of a few rather historic moments in Detroit's history, all of which are now mostly forgotten. Since this December (2017) marks the 100th anniversary of Finland's independence, now is a good time to recall our city's connection to its history and its people.

I have already written much about Finns in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula copper mining region, which contains the highest concentration of them anywhere on planet Earth other than Finland itself, but they were hardly one of the more prominent racial groups in Detroit's past. But Finns did come here in some numbers in the 1910s to work in the auto factories, and probably Wolverine Tube. As I briefly explained in my post about Wolverine Tube, the infamous failed Copper Country Strike of 1913 resulted in many Finns and other Scandinavian miners fleeing to Detroit around 1914. Their arrival also bolstered the ranks of the movement to unionize the auto industry. Some Detroit Finns even held higher social positions such as draftsmen and engineers, doctors, dentists, and lawyers, as well as many teachers. 

According to a book by Michael M. Loukinen, Detroit's "Finn Town" boasted a rich array of Finnish cultural institutions, and was at its peak from 1920 to 1950. Commonly known as "Finn Hall," this building was erected by the Finnish Workers Society according to the book Union Town: A Labor History Guide to Detroit, by Ron Alpern. 

It was built in 1923 and designed by notable local architect John Kasurin (Kasurinen in Finnish), who also allegedly supervised the construction of Henry Ford's Fair Lane Estate, according to the book History of the Finns in Michigan by Dr. Holmio. Kasurin came to America in 1905 to settle here in Detroit himself. He designed many buildings in Ann Arbor, as well as other labor halls, churches, and apartment buildings, and even had a hand in designing the Hotel Statler. I recently learned that Kasurin also designed the home of Henry Ford's production chief, Charles Sorenson, the ruins of which I explored in an older post. During WWII, Kasurin invented a device that would allow ships sunk by German U-boats to be raised and salvaged.

Image from the Detroit Free Press, via Benjamin Gravel
Similar ethnic halls dotted every major American city in the early 20th century wherever major immigrant groups congregated, and Detroit had plenty of them. Many still stand today, such as the Lithuanian Hall on Vernor, and the various Polish halls; you may recall that I even explored Detroit's Slovak Hall and Ukrainian Hall in previous posts on this website.

During the 1930s and early 1940s Finn Hall was a center of radical organizing activity; the Communist Party and the Daily Worker had their Detroit offices here, and it was the headquarters of UAW Local 157. 

The book A Scandinavian Heritage: 200 Years of Scandinavian Presence in the Windsor-Detroit Border Region by Joan Magee explains that the Finnish Civil War in 1918 resulted in a migration of Finns to Detroit by 1919, where they were free to establish themselves according to their own principals, or to avoid compulsory military service under the Czarist government's Russification policy at that time. There were two main types of Finns who came: rural conservative "church Finns" who wanted the freedom to be in their own ethnic religious groups, and urban "worker Finns" who adhered to socialism (the groups were also known as the "white" and the "red" Finns).

The supposed first Finn to ever reside in Detroit was in the 1830s according Dr. Holmio, but Detroit's first Finnish socialist group wasn't organized until 1906; they got their first hall in 1914. In 1923 they built a combination hall and office building—which I presume to be this same edifice. In December of 1924, a Finnish vice consulate was established in Detroit, with attorney Charles Bartanen named to the office. Detroit's was among the strongest of all Finnish-American socialist organizations, until it collapsed like many others had in the dissolution caused by communism, which, Holmio writes, eventually caused them to even lose their hall.

I wonder if the noted Finnish-American architects Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero Saarinen ever spent any time here; their family came to Detroit in 1923. Their many works, including Cranbrook Institute, the GM Tech Center, and the St. Louis Arch earned their family name a permanent place among the world's great architects.

The 1930 Census counted over 27,000 Finns in Michigan, mostly in the Keweenaw Peninsula. The link provides more detail from that census. The Finns in Wayne County in 1930 numbered 9,145 strong, with almost all of them residing in Detroit. Of those, about 3,200 were born in the old country (at that time about 1/3 of Detroit's entire population was foreign-born).

An October 1923 Free Press article tells how the relocation of the nationally famous singing group, the Finnish-American Glee Club, from the Copper Country of the Keweenaw Peninsula to Detroit signaled this city's growth and its emergence as a significant enclave of Finnish people. The singing group had been in the Copper Country for 29 years, but was celebrating their 30th anniversary at the Danish Brotherhood Hall, at 1775 W. Forest Avenue—which seems to indicate that this structure had probably not been completed yet. 

A later article from 1929 however says that the Glee Club was still doing its annual concerts not at the Finn Hall, but at McCollester Hall at 433 W. Forest, which is part of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church. I have a feeling based on the limited resources I have been able to marshal so far, that the Detroit Finns only actually used this building briefly; that it was probably opened in early 1924, and they had ceased using it by the 1930s when the Communist Party established it as their headquarters, but the newspapers seem to have kept referring to the building as the "Finnish Hall" for decades afterward.

In the summer of 1925, the Detroit Finnish Co-operative Summer Camp was established in the distant suburb of Wixom, also known as "Finn Camp." They built the remote camp so they could keep their native traditions alive in (I presume) a more bucolic setting than inner city Detroit, and to "promote the social, intellectual, cultural, and physical welfare of its members." Camp activities included athletics, sauna, swimming, drama, and the Finnish midsummer festival of Juhannus. A video on Youtube gives an overview and history of the Finn Camp.

Today Detroit's Finnish community is focused in the suburb of Farmington Hills, at the Finnish Center Association Cultural Center, but I'm sure the Kalevala has been sung on this stage more than once...

The Finnish-American Business Club was founded in March 1928 to promote better relations between Finn merchants in the city, and according to the book Finns in Michigan by Gary Kaunonen, "the Detroit Finnish Coop moved into the Labor Temple building at 5969 14th Street" in October 1929 (Other Finnish Workers' Halls in other cities were sometimes called the Labor Temple, or Tyontemppeli).

But it was sometime in the mid-1930s that the Finns seem to have ceased using this building and the U.S. Communist Party began using it as a headquarters. In October 1933 an organizer for the Communist Party held a lecture called "The Coming War and the Auto Workers," under the auspices of the Detroit Workers School here at the hall. A year later another Free Press blurb talked about drama and concert programs that were sometimes held here, and marked such an upcoming event that included an "Oriental bazaar" held by the International Labor Defense of Detroit, to be followed by dancing.

A story in the Detroit Free Press from December 1935 said that Detroit's Finnish colony numbered 25,000 people on the 18th anniversary of Finnish independence, and that there were 150,000 more settled elsewhere in Michigan. The anniversary celebration was held at Masonic Hall however, not the Finnish Hall.

An article in the Free Press from May 1938 declares, "Communist Party Opens State Enclave in Detroit," referencing this building. The following year, despite the outbreak of WWII and predictions that the U.S. Communist Party would go underground, they were still very much out in the open and vocal in November of 1939. A riot here at Detroit's Finnish Hall made national news, as reported by LIFE Magazine, "America's most vehement reaction" to the local commies...

Image from LIFE Magazine, courtesy of
It was on November 9th, 1939, when Communist Party chairman William Zebulon Foster gave an address to 1,500 members here at the Finnish Hall, to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the Soviet Union. According to the book Maurice Sugar: Law, Labor, and the Left in Detroit, 1912-1950, the rally in the hall that night was also to protest the arrest of Earl Browder that month. Earl Browder was one of the most powerful communist leaders in America, a Wichita native who ran twice for U.S. President on the Communist Party ticket. He was convicted of conspiracy against the draft laws during World War I and went to prison. He studied Marx, was the editor of a socialist newspaper, and supported the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Outside, an angry crowd of 1,500 people was gathering. The counter-demonstration was organized by Rev. G.B. Vick, the pastor of the all-white Southern Baptist church just one block up 14th Street, as well as by UAW-AFL right-wing leader Pat McCartney...and it wasn't long before someone sent a rock flying through a window. When the communists emerged, the battle began. As LIFE Magazine so eloquently put it, "Red heads bled." While 14th Street was bathed in chaos, an AFL unionist shouted through his megaphone, "Boys, you're doing a very good job...this is one of the most patriotic scenes I've ever witnessed. Next time they try to hold a meeting, we'll hang them to the lamp poles." At least 20 people were hospitalized, three of them with serious injuries. Cries of "kill the Russians" reportedly filled the night.

Image from LIFE Magazine, courtesy of
The caption says, "A downed Red yells for mercy during rioting;" the placard reads, "AMERICA FOREVER! COMMUNISM NEVER!" I imagine that the men are yelling something to the effect of "Hey, mack, we don't cotton to no commies 'round here, see?"

Knowing the historic enmity between Finland and Russia—especially considering that the bitter "Winter War" broke out between the two nations 21 days later—I'd say it's a safe bet that many Finns may have been among the ones throwing the most punches that night, almost as if the first battle of the Winter War was fought here on the streets of Detroit.

In the days following the mayhem, Detroit Police detectives were ordered to round up all possible witnesses to the riot—including Pat McCartney—and Mayor Reading ordered an investigation into whether proper police protection had been given during the event. There were suspicions that police were to blame for the trouble, "because of their lack of enthusiasm," and one person testified that many officers even made remarks that stoked the fires of lawlessness leading up to the riot. The American Legion, the Jewish War Veterans Bureau, and the VFW also picketed the meeting at the hall, but denied that any of their members had started the rioting. Lt. Quigley of the 8th Precinct said he called for reinforcements four times during the "free-for-all" brawl. 

The riot investigation was reopened in January 1940 due to charges of laxity by the police to quell the disturbance, and that they allowed communists to be "unmercifully beaten" by counter-protestors in the streets as they left the hall, in what the Free Press called "Detroit's worst street riot." The police had provided only 12 officers for the event, but to finally bring the 3,000-person melee under control a total of 80 officers were needed. The next meeting of the communists was held at the Mayfair Auditorium (aka, Crystal Ballroom) on Woodward, which I also explored in an older post. The meeting that night was guarded by 62 cops, and there was no further violence.

From 'Treason Within Is Destroying Our Nation!' via Google Books

That August, the Finnish Hall across the river in Windsor, Ontario (at 1367 Drouillard) was padlocked by police and its furnishings confiscated, on grounds that it was being used by foreign groups for subversive activities. The Ukrainian Hall at 1547 Drouillard was also given the same treatment.

The UAW Local 157 also called this building home for many years. According to the Walter Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Local 157 were chartered in June of 1936, primarily representing the numerous tool and die shops on the city's west side, such as Commercial Steel Treating Co., Commonwealth Brass Co., and McLaughlin Co., as well as the tool & die men of Fisher Body Plants #21 and #23. In the beginning of the movement to organize automobile industry labor, tool & die workers were united under the Mechanics Educational Society of America; Local 157 was ultimately formed after the UAW-CIO began to draw membership from their ranks. 

A book entitled Two Who Were There by Margaret Nowak says that 1,500 workers from the General Motors Ternstedt Plant in Southwest Detroit met here at the Finn Hall on September 30, 1936—I presume to plan for the major sit-down strike that would take place at Ternstedt in 1937 as part of the massive push to unionize GM that year. It was shortly after this meeting that the hall was purchased for Local 157 as their headquarters, Nowak writes. The Local 157 eventually merged with Local 174 in 2001. 

In December 1939, to help alleviate the suffering of those in Finland at the outset of the Russian invasion of the Karelian Isthmus (the Winter War), Detroit Finns set up a relief fund and a donation center at 12844 Woodrow Wilson Avenue. The building was also a place where Finnish ladies could go and knit warm clothing en-masse for the drive. I wonder if most of Detroit's Finnish colony had already relocated to this area by then?

Former president Herbert Hoover himself chaired the relief fund, while famous Michigan architect Eliel Saarinen was made honorary chairman of the Detroit committee. The article went on to say that a surprising number of Michigan-born Finnish men were also seeking to enlist in the Finnish Army to go over and fight "the Reds," although it was of course illegal for them to do so.

I am fairly sure I once saw a map as part of an exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum showing that there was also a Finnish enclave out near Fenkell & Livernois Avenues, and this 1950s photo of the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church seems to back that up. The church is at 15003 Fairfield and although it is now Baptist, it still seems to be open: Link to Google Streetview

The center at 12844 Woodrow Wilson Avenue was also in that same rough vicinity (although it no longer stands), and then there was the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church at 13110 Fourteenth Street too, built in 1928.

Another detail from Dr. Holmio's book History of the Finns in Michigan was that the local Detroit Finnish community once arranged a race in which famous Olympic athlete Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn," participated to demonstrate his super-human running ability. This was apparently in March 1940, as the Free Press reported Paavo Nurmi and his protege Taisto Maki stayed at Hotel Statler, and raced at U of M's Yost Fieldhouse in Ann Arbor. The stunt was part of a plan to raise half a million dollars to help war-torn Finland, and I suspect there was also an informal race somewhere here in the 'hood. Dr. Holmio writes that some of the Polish people in attendance were so excited by this that they were said to have called out, "Me Finn too!"

In 1942 the Detroit Board of Education was holding free citizenship classes at Finnish Hall as part of the WPA Adult Education Project, although it is not said whether this was for Finnish people or just immigrants in general. Similar classes were held at the Kronk Rec Center, and Davison School, the Free Press reported.

After the UAW and the Communists moved on, this old Finn Hall on 14th stayed in use as a general community center when the neighborhood turned predominantly African-American. Michigan Bell Telephone Company's Michigan Minority Business Directory for 1972 says this building was occupied by the People's Community Civic League at that time, and the Black Yellow Pages for 1974 listed it as occupied by the Citizens' Alliance For Self Help.

I went into the lower level to specifically see if there were any saunas in here, but I presume this tiled room was a kitchen? How could there be a Finnish Hall without a sauna, I wonder? If there was one, I'm sure it's long gone. If it was a kitchen, I bet they used to bake a lot of nisu and pasties and panukakku down here...yummmmmm

There was this gymnasium under the auditorium however:

Several sources I found via Google Books from 1979 to 2001 all say that this building was occupied by the Career Development Center during that timespan. Other c.2001 sources list other organizations in the building as well, including Youth Enrichment is Success, lnc., and Charisma Performing Arts.

I surmise that this building was finally abandoned in the mid to late 2000s...

...And as of 2019, it is being renovated.

Sanborn Maps for Detroit, Volume 6, Sheet 26 (1910)
History of the Finns in Michigan, by Dr. Armas Kustaa Ensio Holmio, p. 294, 389, 431, 440
A Scandinavian Heritage: 200 Years of Scandinavian Presence in the Windsor-Detroit Border Region, by Joan Magee, p. 69
Finns in Michigan, by Gary Kaunonen, p. 110
Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, by Willis F. Dunbar & George S. May, p. 511
All Our Yesterdays, by Woodford & Woodford, p. 251
Union Town: A Labor History Guide to Detroit, by Ron Alpern (1979), p. 27
Maurice Sugar: Law, Labor, and the Left in Detroit, 1912-1950, by Christopher H. Johnson, p. 244
"Finnish Singers Plan Big Celebration Here," Detroit Free Press, October 5, 1923, p. 15
"Finnish Glee Club," Detroit Free Press, April 14, 1929, pt. 4, p. 3
"Finnish Club Installs," Detroit Free Press, June 20, 1928, p. 5
"Forum to Hear Schmies," Detroit Free Press, October 20, 1933, p. 9
"Three Programs of Music," Detroit Free Press, November 23, 1934, p. 12
"Finns In State Will Celebrate," Detroit Free Press, December 5, 1935, p. 4
"Communist Party Opens State Enclave in Detroit, Detroit Free Press, May 14, 1938, p. 12
"Finnish Relief Set Up in City," Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1939, p. 12
"Police Ordered to Round Up All Anti-Red Riot Witnesses," Detroit Free Press, November 12, 1939, p. 1, 5
LIFE Magazine, November 27, 1939, p. 34
"Two Halls," Detroit Free Press, August 2, 1940, Detroit Free Press, p. 12
"Lawyers Ask for Riot Probe," Detroit Free Press, January 20, 1940, p. 5
"Officers Guard Reds' Meeting," Detroit Free Press, January 22, 1940, p. 15
"Citizen Class in Finn Hall," Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1942, pt. 3, p. 8
"West Side to Have Another Club Building," Detroit Free Press, June 24, 1923, p. 19
Journal of Detroit City Council (February 15, 2001), p. 292
Michigan Manufacturer & Financial Record, Volume 20, (1917), p. 37
The Michigan Bell Michigan Minority Business Directory (1972), p. 52
A Guide to Arts and Cultural Organizations in Southeast Michigan, Michigan Association of Community Arts Agencies (2001)
Patterson's American Education, Volume 76 (1979), p. 721
Occupational Education, (1993) by Max M. Russell, p. 249
City of Detroit Annual Planning Information Report (2001), p. 79
Black Yellow Pages (1974), by African American Business Enterprises, p. 10
U.S. Congress House Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings 1951/52, Vol. 3, U.S. Government Printing Office, p. 3031 & 3033
Treason Within is Destroying Our Nation!, Cinema Educational Guild, Inc. (1968)
"City to be Host to Nurmi and Maki Today," Detroit Free Press, March 19, 1940, p. 17
"Flashing Finns Welcomed by Countrymen," Detroit Free Press, March 20, 1940, p. 19
Two Who Were There: A Biography of Stanley Nowak, by Margaret Collingwood Nowak, p. 117

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