If you’ve walked along W43rd Street towards Times Square or the subway, you might have glimpsed a sign for the Martin Luther King Jr Labor Center — or maybe you stopped and stared at a wonderful, colorful mosaic mural depicting Black and Puerto Rican union members at work and rest, along with a Frederick Douglass quote, “If there is no struggle, there can be no progress.”
Until recently, the building housed 1199SEIU — the largest healthcare union in the country with 450,000 members. They had outgrown the building and found new office space over on 7th Avenue. The 13-story office is slated for demolition to make way for a new development. What about the mural?
Anton Refregier, a Russian immigrant who came to New York in 1920, created the mosaic back in 1970 to capture the ideals of the union — they wanted the building to celebrate the life of Dr King, who called Local 1199 “his favorite union”. In 1965 union president David Sullivan joined MLK in the Selma to Montgomery March. Just weeks before his assassination in 1968, King delivered a short speech to members of local 1199SEIU in New York City. He referred to himself as a “fellow 1199-er,” and said. “I would suggest that if all of labor would emulate what you have been doing over the years, our nation would be closer to victory in the fight to eliminate poverty and injustice.”
1199SEIU President George Gresham commissioned British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye in 2018 to take on the moving project — and the challenge of what to do with the mosaic.
It was imperative for Gresham to remain faithful to the union’s roots. He told An Interior Magazine last year: “I wanted people, particularly our young members, to understand the legacy of 1199.”
As Adjaye Associates started to look into de-installing and relocating the mural, they discovered that they could not do so without damaging it. The union and architect elected to reproduce Refregier’s powerful work in the new HQ, piece by piece.
“This was a very hard decision. 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 shared. “The replication process we implemented continues this idea of remaking, but faithfully.”
Adjaye worked with mosaic artisan Stephen Miotto to re-create the Refregier mural that crowned 1199’s old home on W43rd Street. Miotto’s father was involved in the execution of the original back in 1970, and the son was able to source the same tessera (mosaic tiles) for the re-creation.
So at the moment, there are two Anton Refregier murals in New York City, less than 10 blocks apart. The new version is set amongst modern murals that fill the hallways of the 1199SEIU new member spaces, located at the base of 498 Seventh Avenue. Adjaye used images from the union’s vast photo archive to create more mosaics. An image of Martin Luther King Jr overlooks it all.
Meanwhile, the original mural is waiting for the demolition crews. Developers aim to start construction this year and complete the project by 2024. The complex will stretch between W42nd and W43rd Street and 8/9th Avenues. For now, you can still take a peek at the original mosaic at 314 W43rd Street.