Start here

YWCA renovation nears completion

By Emmalee C. Torisk | Metro Monthly Staff Writer

One century ago, after raising $150,000, several members of the city’s most prominent families established a permanent space for the fledgling YWCA of Youngstown: a five-story brick structure on West Rayen Avenue. Constructed in 1911 and dedicated one year later, the building has since been central to the organization’s programs and services. However, in recent years, the structure has often hindered, rather than helped, efficient fulfillment of the YWCA’s mission.

“The women of the community needed a place for women and families. [The YWCA has] been many things for many people and has seen many uses throughout the years,” said Leah Brooks, development director of the YWCA. “It’s a symbol of women’s history, of the women leaders of our community. But it was in need of a facelift.”

Subsequently, in August, the YWCA of Youngstown began an ambitious $10 million renovation and restoration of the historic building that has functioned, at various times in the past 100 years, as a homeless shelter, a place of worship and a center for childcare, education, health and recreation, social activities and women affected by crisis.

The YWCA Board of Directors began planning the project in 1996 after a feasibility study determined renovation of the existing structure more economical than demolition and new construction. Eight years later, the board recommitted to that idea and started searching for an architectural firm to present a visual plan of the renovation. The board chose local architect Paul Ricciuti, primarily for his experience with preserving and adaptively reusing historic buildings.

“[The structure] is very, very sound,” Ricciuti said. “It’s part of the fabric of Youngstown. We’ve torn down too many historic buildings in our community. It’s a major, major plus for our community that the board decided to stay there.”

Approximately $9 million has been committed to the project. In 2007, the YWCA received $3.2 million from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency in low-income housing tax credits to renovate a portion of the structure, said Constance Shaffer, executive director of the YWCA. She noted that this award was followed by $1.4 million in historic preservation tax credits, $1 million in state historic preservation tax credits, $1 million from the Federal Home Loan Bank, $750,000 from the Ohio Housing Trust Fund, $700,000 from a Clean Ohio grant and $400,000 from the city of Youngstown. The project has also received assistance from the YWCA’s capital campaign and is seeking further community support and donations.

“It’s all been tough,” Shaffer said of financing the project. “It’s never a sure thing. Government grants and the stimulus made the project possible. [We had] the majority of money coming through that way.”

Despite some funding struggles and the project’s inherent risks and challenges, Shaffer stressed the need for up-to-date permanent supportive housing, primarily for those who require “help in maintaining homes.”

“It was not a great environment,” Shaffer said of the building before the project’s start. “It was too hot, too cold, there were things breaking. It was not very modern.”

To better meet the contemporary needs of YWCA residents, the structure’s 36 dormitory-style single bedrooms — which featured common bathrooms, living rooms and kitchens — have been transformed into 30 handicapped-accessible one-bedroom and efficiency apartments for low-income single women. Each unit provides a private bathroom and kitchen facility and ranges in size from 450 to 700 square feet, Brooks said.

“Privacy is important. It’s hard enough for students to live like that, let alone grown women,” Brooks said of the previous housing conditions. “[The new apartments] are cozy; they feel like more of a home.”

All apartments feature several amenities, including a refrigerator, a stove, a phone, Internet, cable, plenty of storage space, heat and air conditioning. Prior to the renovation, residents relied on shared air-conditioning units installed in each floor’s community lounge and one thermostat that controlled temperature settings for the entire building. Now, residents can adjust rooms to their personal comfort levels.

The updated residential space spreads across the top three floors and a portion of the second. Construction should be complete by September or October, while all 30 apartments will likely be rented and leased by December, Brooks said. Licensed social workers will provide on-site supportive services for residents.

This comprehensive effort also includes restoration of the structure’s original two-story gymnasium, which will be used as a community all-purpose room. Areas adjacent to the gymnasium have been designated as small group meeting rooms, restrooms and a kitchen. The YWCA’s health outreach staff will be housed there, but building residents, YWCA program participants and the public are encouraged to use the space, Brooks said.

The public will also be welcomed into the YWCA’s first-floor lobby, which is being restored to its 1911 appearance. Historic elements of the structure were preserved, following state and federal historic preservation standards. What could not be preserved or was otherwise unavailable had to be replicated.

Layers of paint have been stripped from the original woodwork and fireplaces, while multi-pane windows have been installed for historical accuracy, Brooks said. The lobby will also feature a cyber cafe, complete with Wi-Fi, and a limited food service operation.

“[The lobby] will be for public use, a public area. We’ve had public programs, but this will bring more of a traffic [to the building],” Brooks said.

First-floor space will also be used for retail operations, start-up space for women- and minority-owned businesses, case-management support for clients and partnerships with local government, businesses and training programs.

The former pool building, which stood between the YWCA and the new Williamson College of Business Administration, has been demolished. An enclosed garden will take its place.

Plans are also in place to further develop the YWCA’s childcare center. A new children’s center will feature an outdoor playground, developmental assessments, therapy and specialized services for children with disabilities. These services target children aged 6 weeks to 12 years, including those with special needs.

Other additions and improvements include activity rooms, a fitness area and computer labs. More efficient and economical operating systems, such as new wiring and plumbing, were installed.

“We’re gutting out the old and putting in new,” Brooks said. “It creates a healthier environment for staff, residents and the public. When people come in here, even members of our own board, they’re amazed.”

Prior to the project’s start, Brooks recalled questioning the YWCA’s downtown location.

“Do we belong here? Do we belong in the suburbs?” Brooks asked. “But we have a value here, a value downtown. We’re very much involved with community revitalization and the renaissance of the community. The community response to this transition, this transformation, has been very positive.”

© 2010, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.


Student hopeful after theater-facade victory

By Jaime Hughes | Special to the Metro Monthly

As night glimmered off the old State Theatre, I couldn’t help but close my eyes and wonder what kind of people had laughed in this building. How many people came down on a Sunday afternoon looking to see movies? How many generations had crossed the skywalk over the alleyway that led to the grand theater?

Memories are what make up Youngstown. But what good are memories if there isn’t a piece of them to stay alive?
A while back, that’s what I decided to do – keep a part of Youngstown alive. It seemed unrealistic to try and save a theater that had been on a demolition list for years, but I felt compelled to save the building from the wrecking ball.

It felt like an uphill battle to protect something that had been closed for decades. Many newspaper articles published on the State Theatre called it unsafe. One paper reported that a man who had entered the building sustained injuries due to unsteady floors and missing railings.

But my endeavor to save the State Theatre led me to meet politicians, students, artists, professors and even a man who would not survive – but who had pushed us and believed in us from the beginning even when no one else did.

I stood to make my case in a small, packed café in front of people all much more older than me – all with degrees and full of skepticism. How could an 18-year-old Cardinal Mooney senior and her 20-year-old YSU partner save a building that would cost a considerable amount of money to renovate?

As I stood in that café in front of reporters, the media, and concerned citizens, I felt as if I were looking into the eyes of a firing squad. That meeting was a blur until the late Bob Fitzer stood up, and I will never forget what he said to that crowd that night: “These kids are full of ridiculous ideas, but if it isn’t for kids like them and ideas like theirs, we would not have the passion and determination we have today. We are standing in a building that I saved [the Cedars]. They may not be able to save this building [the State], but they sure as hell can put up a fight and save the most valuable part – the facade.”

Those words gave birth to the “Save the State Theatre Facade” effort. From that moment, we had vowed to save the building’s decorative facade facing West Federal Street.

A buzz of ideas and positive vibes circulated the room. What had been a firing squad just minutes before had turned into dinner with friends. Downtown Youngstown isn’t just a place you visit then never return. It’s a place where you meet new people who become familiar faces and friends.

As the night came to a close, the fight still was not over. Petitions began circulating, friends and family members began writing letters to local government on the importance of this downtown facade. Architects and Youngstown activists began speaking at national conventions and to the media on the status of the project and the significance of the facade staying intact, in its original location.

The State Theatre, which dates from 1927, has a beautiful terra cotta facade. The State was known for its arched facade and its interesting set-up – a small entrance and foyer area led to a skywalk that took theater-goers into the 2,000- seat theater.

After ending its life as a movie theater, the State became a venue for rock music, first with the Tomorrow Club and then the Agora Ballroom. In the 1970s and 80s, bands like the Ramones, who were rumored to have autographed the back wall of the theater, had played there with many other great bands. It wasn’t until 1986 that the theater closed for good, due to financial troubles. It has since sat vacant. (The State is owned by the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp.)

Some local theater groups expressed an interest in the building, but no luck. As time went on, the theater slid further and further into disrepair. It finally made its way onto a real demolition list. The site will be used by the Taft Technology Center.

But the story does not end there. Thanks to wonderful activism and a vocal community, the State facade will remain. It will now be preserved on West Federal as part of an emerging technology block. And to ensure that the facade remains intact, there is a $100,000 penalty if it is harmed during the demolition of the rear theater building.

This is why I am never ashamed to say I was born and raised and continue to fight the good fight in Youngstown, because the area is comprised of wonderful, dedicated people who have great concern for our city and it’s future – even if it is one facade at a time.

© 2008, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

Rose Kravitz discusses joys, challenges of running a business since 1939

Rose Kravitz, owner of Kravitz's Delicatessen, in 2006.

Rose Kravitz, owner of Kravitz's Delicatessen, in 2006.

This article was originally published in the March 2006 issue of The Metro Monthly.

By Mark C. Peyko | Metro Monthly Editor

When Kravitz’s Delicatessen opened in 1939, “Gone With the Wind” was in theaters and World War II was about to begin. Rose Kravitz and her husband were in their early twenties and about to undertake a business partnership that would endure the lean war years, periods of growth and prosperity, and the establishment of a family.

Today the delicatessen is serving its fourth generation of customers and a North Jackson production facility turns out 2,000 bagels per hour for wholesale and retail customers in 15 states.

For many Mahoning Valley residents, the Liberty-based delicatessen remains a constant in community life. In addition, even at 90, delicatessen cofounder Rose Kravitz still takes an active role in the administration of the restaurant where she typically works a full day.

Kravitz recalled that the original Elm Street location was an immediate hit, even though she and her husband were young and inexperienced. “From the very beginning, we had the acceptance of the community. Right from the start. We still have that ability within our business.”

“We’re a Jewish deli that caters to the general public,” Kravitz said.

With limited experience, the young couple opened Kravitz’s Delicatessen on Elm Street near Thornton Avenue. Although Youngstown’s North Side had the highest concentrations of Jews in the metropolitan area, Kravitz said the delicatessen’s appeal transcended racial and cultural lines.

Like many small, family-owned businesses, Kravitz’s had its challenges and triumphs. Rationing and wartime food shortages were serious early hurdles for a business in need of a constant supply of foodstuffs.

“During World War II, getting products was difficult,” Kravitz recalled. “It was a big thing in any food business. There was no butter. If you needed meats, you had to have [rationing] tickets or you went on the black market,” Kravitz recalled.

However, it was a debilitating illness that presented the most serious early challenge to the young couple. Ironically, hidden within the challenge was the greatest opportunity for a lifetime partnership, because it set the tone for the couple’s relationship.

Sixteen-year-old Rose Hirschl met her future husband at an impromptu – albeit manufactured – social event that she and her teenage girlfriends cooked up one afternoon.

“We got on the phone and called up and few boys and said we were going to have a party with hot dogs and snacks and a bunch of girls were going to be there,” Kravitz recalled. She met her future husband there, and, after a courtship, the couple married.

Kravitz said her husband unexpectedly took ill during the early years of their marriage.

She said they managed to weather the challenge, but the illness rendered him incapable of performing some of the more demanding physical tasks needed in the family business. Kravitz said her husband’s decision to delegate responsibility had as much to do with necessity as with the emotional chemistry of the couple. She said her husband encouraged her to delegate noncritical domestic responsibilities to others too.

Kravitz said delegating responsibility was an important early lesson and one that still applies in running a business at 90. “You need to delegate certain things in a business or you’ll burn yourself out,” she observed.

After a few years in business, the Kravitzs acquired a commercial building farther north on Elm near Tod Lane. “We bought the building and we had enough money saved that we renovated that building. In a matter of not too many years, we had the building paid for,” Rose Kravitz recalled. Still, there were occasional challenges to the business in its early years.

“For a short period of time, things got a little bit hard,” Kravitz said. “I think we had too much inventory and not enough cash. So rumors started to pass around the town: ‘Kravitz’s isn’t doing well.’ She said that’s when her husband, who had a keen understanding of marketing and public image, stepped in.

“My husband said, ‘Let’s try something. Let’s buy a new car.’ And I said, ‘You’re nuts!’ But he said, ‘No.’ So her husband went out and bought a new car and parked it right in front of the restaurant. 

“We took our register, which was in the back and put it up front. So if we had two customers, it looked like the place was as busy as you could ever imagine,” Kravitz recalled. She said the rumors of  ill fortune soon ceased, adding that her husband was keenly aware of public image and marketing. “He was sharp . . . and he was a very, very kind caring man.”

Kravitz said she attributed the delicatessen’s success to the mutual respect she and her husband had toward each other. “I think mainly because we respected each other’s needs. My husband, first, could not physically handle as much as I could. That was a fact. He had a back problem, his legs got tired very quickly, but that didn’t matter. With a little bit of pampering, it worked out well.”

She said each understood and respected personal needs outside of the business. “My husband needed recreation, like golf. He needed bowling. He needed a good poker game. And I made sure that he had it. In the afternoon, when I needed time for myself – whether it was running the house, taking care of the children – he made sure I had that. The first day I had children, I had house help. And my husband said to me, ‘If you don’t have house help, you’ll burn out.’ ”

Kravitz said sharing responsibilities was in the business from the onset, with tasks suited to the strengths and capabilities of each person. “My husband decided that as far as managing money, I could do better than he could. So there was no competition,” she recalled. “We each knew that one person had certain strengths and we respected that. And we also gave ourselves enough time away from each other. We each still had a little bit of extra life.”

In recent years, developments have ensured that the Kravitz name reach a wider audience than those who frequent the restaurant. In the early 1990s Rose’s son, Jack, and daughter-in-law, Cindy, opened a production facility to manufacture bagels for retail and wholesale customers.

Rose Kravitz said her lawyer son approached the mass production of bagels as if he were preparing for a case. “He had books from the library, just like he was doing a law case. Books on chemistry, books on physics, books on engineering. That place is automated. You had to know what you were talking about.”

Rose Kravitz said the North Jackson business started before a bagel boom in the 1990s, so there wasn’t a model for production. “There was no precedent for the business.” She said large-scale bagel manufacturers like Lenders were making a frozen product. “They [Jack and Cindy Kravitz] literally had to set their own model,” Kravitz recalled. “And you couldn’t make too many mistakes or you could get wiped out.”

Before opening North Jackson, bagels were manufactured at the Belmont Avenue deli with a crew of 20 people. Realizing the inadequacies of such an arrangement, the Kravitz family began looking for a more appropriate location.

Today the North Jackson production facility turns out 2,000 bagels per hour for customers in 15 states. “We built it from the ground up. We started with nothing and I think we did well,” Rose Kravitz concluded.

© 2009, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

Time runs out for Jeannette Blast Furnace

The Jeannette Blast Furnace prior to its demolition. Electronic image courtesy of the Tod Engine Co. and Richard Rowlands.    

The Jeannette Blast Furnace prior to its demolition. Electronic image courtesy of the Tod Engine Co. and Richard Rowlands.


The following article was originally published in The Metro Eye in November 1993, with updates in October 1996.

By Mark C. Peyko and John Rose

J. Richard Rowlands was 4 years old when the Mahoning Valley’s steel industry collapsed, so it seems quite unusual that the Hubbard youth would have become so taken with the history of the local industry.

But since founding the Jeannette Blast Furnace Preservation Association in 1992, Rowlands has been a lobbyist, activist, and pilot for an organization with a noble, yet ultimately unattainable, goal: the preservation of the Jeannette Blast Furnace.

The Jeannette site is one of the last remaining vestiges of a once omnipresent industrial complex that stretched along the Mahoning River from Warren to Lowellville. With this in mind, the recent announcement that the Ohio Department of Development will raze the historic blast furnace and related buildings has sent a crushing blow to the 23-year old whose mission for Jeannette had at times become messianic.

In a 1993 Metro Eye article, Rowlands said he sought to transform the rapidly deteriorating Jeannette Blast Furnace at Brier Hill into a museum, where people could learn about the Mahoning Valley’s historic role in America’s steel industry – by experiencing it.

“People my age and younger, I don’t think they would know much about it [the mills],” Rowlands noted during a recent telephone conversation. “Most of it [research material] is hidden; that’s one reason why it was really important to help educate.”

With the assistance of his 60-member Jeannette Blast Furnace Preservation Association, Rowlands had hoped to acquire, secure and stabilize the Jeanette site. Rowlands, who had been handling ongoing negotiations with the state of Ohio, said the association “couldn’t do what they [the state] needed for us to do, so we decided to direct those resources to things that we could manage.”

Youngstown resident Bryn Zellers, another member of the association, said conditions from the state that the group carry a large insurance policy, undertake a below-ground cleanup, and stabilize the Jeannette structure were not feasible for the association.

“If we continued with the blast furnace,” Rowlands added, “we could lose everything else.”

Instead, Rowlands is currently negotiating to videotape, photograph, and document the doomed Jeannette complex, which was immortalized by musician Bruce Springsteen last year. A second project in the works is to negotiate the acquisition of the old Tod Furnace Blowing Engine House – where artifacts related to the steel and railroad industries could be housed.

At the proposed Tod Site, the organization would house, among other things, a 250-ton, pre-20th century steam engine once owned by the William Tod Co. In addition, the association would house archival material and assemble steel industry artifacts like pouring ladles, etc.

Although the impending loss of Jeanette is a serious disappointment to the organization – and Rowlands, in particular, JBFPA sees the proposed acquisition of the Tod site as a potential consolation prize and good move. First, it’s the only building on the site with an intact roof. Second, and perhaps most important, it’s located at a remote end of the property being redeveloped, so it probably wouldn’t interfere with the state’s future plans.

Although this scenario is far from the fate Rowlands envisioned a few short years ago, it’s probably the best the group can do, considering the circumstances.

The Jeannette Blast Furnace dates back to 1917 – the year the United States entered World War I. in anticipation of a heightened need for steel, the Brier Hill Steel Co. began building the furnace plant during the same year.

Blast furnaces play an essential role in the steelmaking process. They are basically extremely hot structures that remove the carbon content from iron. Only after this removal can the iron be used as material for steel production.

The Jeannette Blast Furnace, named after the Brier Hill Co. president’s daughter, began production in September 1918 – only two months before World War I ended. After its only upgrade in 1924, the furnace ran with occasional interruptions until1977, having produced a total of 2.6 million tons of iron suitable for steel production.

“A lot of people called it the best-running blast furnace,” Rowlands remarked in 1993.

After suffering from years of deterioration and looting, the last remaining furnace plant in the area was discovered by Rowlands, who had been exploring the Brier Hill area when he was a teenager. Since that discovery about 15 years ago, much of his time had been spent trying to save the furnace.

“That first year I really crammed to learn the steelmaking process,” he said in 1993. “I must have checked out every book from the library.”

The result of all this early work had been the formation of JBFPA and a planned four-phase proposal for the furnace plant’s restoration. In that plan, the ambitious furnace plant museum would have been indoor exhibitions, historical accounts of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and rolling stock donated by the Mahoning Valley Railroad Heritage Association and others. The rolling stock would have included a hot metal car, slag car, scale car, steam locomotive, and possibly other equipment associated with the steel and railroad industries.

Another person who believed in JBFPA and its core mission was H. William Lawson, director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. Lawson acted as a trustee and secretary for the organization, a role he still performs today.

In 1993 Lawson noted that museums displaying exhibitions about the steel industry, such as the Youngstown Museum of Industry and Labor, will never completely replace the real thing.

“There’s something that’s romantic and mythical to what those people (steelworkers) were doing,” he said “and you can’t give an accurate presence of that under a roof.”

Donna DeBlasio, then director of the Youngstown Museum of Industry and Labor, agreed. In 1993 she said that the preservation of the blast furnace could have complemented the industrial museum’s exhibitions. “It’s the only blast furnace in the area,” she said, “and we obviously can’t put it in the museum.”

On the impending loss of the Jeannette site, Lawson added: “In terms of our short-term drive to recoup the jobs lost 20 years ago in the steel industry, we are obliterating examples of the past such as Jeannette. It will be hard for future generations to understand the scale of the industry and how important it was to this community. I don’t think we can fully appreciate how it [the steel industry] affected both the economic and physical landscape of the Mahoning Valley without having structures like Jeannette to see.”

“That plant gave the whole aura of the industrial town. By losing the mills, we’ve lost an aesthetic component of the area – not to mention jobs.”

On the impending loss of the historic blast furnace, Rowlands concluded: “I feel terrible. I’ve been depressed all week… I don’t even know if I’ll be in town when they take it down.”

© 2009, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

Oak Park: The Youngstown Housing Experiment

The Oak Park development was an early 20th century experiment in progressive housing.

Oak Park on the lower North Side of Youngstown

By Mark C. Peyko

Oak Park looked like a little Spanish colonial settlement – more fitting in the American southwest than on the North Side of Youngstown.

However, that wasn’t what the Modern Homes Co. was trying to recreate when it organized in 1909 to build inexpensive “modern, sanitary and semi-fire proof” rental housing for Youngstown’s working class.

The company constructed rows of unattached houses and one terrace apartment, using hollow concrete tile finished with a stucco-like facing. Oak Park originally was sited on a diagonal from Andrews Avenue and continued southwest toward Walnut Street. The development enclosed a large, open green space, which was landscaped with oak trees, shrubbery and grass. 

According to the 1913 publication “Youngstown: City of Progress,” each house in Oak Park was designed to include modern conveniences like bathrooms, hot air furnaces and laundries. Depending on family needs, units ranged from three to seven rooms. Rent was $10 to $25 per month.

In 1909, J.M. Hanson, a charter member and secretary of the newly formed Modern Homes Corp., cited the need for modern, inexpensive housing in the city: “Two and three families are crowded in houses not fit for one family . . . and the congested condition is rapidly increasing.”  H.M. Garlick, president of the Dollar Savings and Trust Co., served as president and treasurer of the quasi-philanthropic housing company.

According to a 1913 Youngstown Chamber of Commerce report, Modern Homes had constructed 110 housing units in the city between 1909 and 1913. 

By 1915, the Youngstown City Directory listed 62 Oak Park addresses and all tenants were identified as blue-collar laborers. Louis Smith, a machinist, lived at 1 Oak Park, and Samuel Dudley (a laborer) and his wife, Amy, occupied 3 Oak Park. Crane and motor operators, conductors and the like occupied other units. 

Youngstown City Directories list the company’s years of existence as spanning from 1910 through 1918.

Construction of the Madison Avenue Expressway in the mid-1960s sheared off many of the houses in the Oak Park development, leaving the settlement without much of its southwestern enclosure. Today, the original plantings in the commons area are mature, making the remnants of Oak Park seem like a small residential campus.

© 2009, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.