Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — George L. Fordyce

George Lincoln Fordyce, Photo from The Youngstown Vindicator, June 25, 1931 via Google News Archive

Most of us remember big downtown stores like McKelvey’s and Strouss-Hirshberg’s. There were a number of other stores along Federal Street in the first part of the twentieth century that are now fading memories. Among these were stores in several locations along West Federal Street operated by George Lincoln Fordyce.

Fordyce was born in Scipio, New York, in Cayuga County on September 29, 1860 to John and Louisa Horton. His first job was trapping rabbits. By age 10, he was working at a general store in Scipio. Eventually he moved to Auburn, working at another store and the Cayuga County National Bank.

He moved to Youngstown in 1883 and opened a women’s wear store in the Arms Building at West Federal and Phelps, a building he eventually owned, which became known as the George L. Fordyce Block. He continued to expand his dry goods business, selling women and men’s clothing, linens and fabric by the yard for those making their own clothing. This was about the same as G. M. McKelvey’s got started.

In 1907 he acquired the Osborne store at West Federal and Hazel Streets, moving the stock to his location under the name The Fordyce-Osborne Company. After a huge inventory reduction sale in early 1912 liquidating much of the remaining Osborne inventory, the store operated as the George L. Fordyce Company until his death.

Ad from The Mahoning Dispatch, January 12, 1912 via the Library of Congress

Having reached the ranks of business leaders in downtown Youngstown, he exercised leadership in a number of other Youngstown civic affairs. He served as a director of Dollar Savings and Trust, First National Bank, and Ohio Leather Company. In 1912 and 1913, he was president of the YMCA, the first president of the local Boy Scouts Council and president of the Youngstown Hospital Association for twenty-three years. In this last role, he oversaw the development of both the Northside and Southside hospitals. He also was a member of the building committee for the Reuben McMillan Library.

Fordyce’s continued to be a favorite place to shop because of events like that recounted by Howard Aley in A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Mahoning County and Youngstown, Ohio, from 1921:

“Santa Claus Came to Fordyce’s”

 Evidence that the characters in the Santa Claus scene have undergone change over the years is found in the fact that on December 12th, a number of Santa’s surrogates arrived via the Erie Railroad to prepare the way for the later arrival of the jolly old gentleman himself. Chris Claus, brother of Santa, and “Toofy”, his companion, whose job it was to look after Santa Claus’s mail during the rush hours, came in via railroad because ‘they ran out of snow about 200 miles north of here and were compelled to forsake the reindeer and dog teams.’ Some 200 children met the pair at the railroad station and escorted them to the George L. Fordyce Store where Santa maintained local headquarters until Christmas. There were so many adults in the crowd, pushing and shoving to get their children’s letters into the hands of Santa Claus that the reception committee was lost in the crowd and the ropes that were intended to hold back the crowd proved utterly ineffective. In regard to the effect of the Santa Claus traditon upon children, Superintendent of Schools O. L. Reid said it should be encouraged. ‘Whatever tends to develop or prolong imagination is well worth while’, he told members of the Sunday School Institute at Central Christian Church” (p. 241).

In researching Fordyce, I discovered he was as well known for his love of birds as for his business leadership. When he was fourteen, his doctor told him that a key to maintaining his health was fresh air, and ornithology gave him a pursuit that allowed him plenty of opportunity for fresh air. He was walking the trails of Mill Creek Park long before Lindley Vickers. He was an expert on identifying every species of local birds and led the annual bird censuses for Mahoning County and was a member of the American Ornithologist Union. In 1944, his portrait was hung in Deane Collection of Ornithologists in the Library of Congress, a mark of his status among fellow ornithologists.

He was also a devoted but not competitive golfer. However, in 1929, his daughter Louise was among the top six golfers in the country.

His health declined in his later years, which may have been a factor in the sale of his stock by C. A. Lockhart, the “Father of the Bargain Sale” in 1929. Shortly after, the store closed at its West Federal and Phelps location to re-open at 15 West Federal, where it was operating at the time of his death. Here is an ad from the store on the day after his death, noting that they would close early on the Saturday before the Fourth of July for the funeral service of their founder:

He died 12:05 am on June 25, 1931 at his home at 40 Lincoln Avenue. Dr. William Hudnut of First Presbyterian Church conducted his funeral service and he was buried among many other Youngstown leaders at Oak Hill Cemetery.

I’ve not been able to find any information about how long the business lasted after his passing, but my sense is that it was not long. Some of the institutions, like the YMCA and the library continue to be a vital part of Youngstown. Others, including the business he led for 48 years are memories. He fostered not only commerce but beauty in his love of nature and, particularly, bird-watching. He was among the early Youngstown leaders who recognized that healthy business and civic institutions and natural beauty made Youngstown a great place.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Central Tower (First National Tower)

8254993521_85357ec880_k

First National Tower, Photo by Jack Pearce (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Most of us who grew up in Youngstown knew it as Central Tower. Located at 1 West Federal Plaza, the building dominates Central Square as the tallest building in Youngstown at a height of 224 feet and seventeen stories. The next highest is the Wick Building at 184 feet. By big city standards, that is not very high. One World Trade Center in New York City is 1,792 feet high at the tip of the tower and has 104 floors. But when I was a kid and had an appointment at an orthodontist’s office in the building, it looked HUGE! I remembered the brass elevators, operated, if I remember correctly, by human elevator operators who would open and close the doors, greet you, and ask you what floor you wanted.

The building is a fine example of Art Deco style (the same style as the Warner Theater). In 2014, a historic marker was erected outside the building recognizing its distinctive style and historic status, by Youngstown Cityscape, The Frank and Pearl Gelbman Foundation, The Mahoning Valley Historical Society, and the Ohio History Connection. The inscription on the sign, as transcribed by the Historic Marker Database captures the distinctive style characteristics and history of the building:

Central TowerOne of northeast Ohio’s finest Art Deco examples, the 17-story Central Tower was designed by Morris W. Scheibel (1887-1976) for Central Savings & Loan in 1929. Scheibel’s use of stepped-back upper floors, an Egyptian-inspired entrance, and chevron-patterned tiles at the parapet reflects Art Deco’s streamlined style. The opulent interior of the tower lobby retains a Botticino marble staircase, engraved brass elevator doors, ornately decorated metalwork, nd a colorful molded plaster ceiling. Youngstown’s tallest skyscraper, whose name has evolved over time to reflect the changes in ownership, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Scheibel and his partner Edgar Stanley also designed the Realty Building directly across Market Street. 

The building opened on December 23, 1929, not quite two months after the stock market of 1929, as the headquarters for Central Savings and Loan. Sadly, the savings and loan did not survive the Depression but the building name endured. In 1976 Metropolitan Savings and Loan, which did survive the Depression, set up its headquarters in the tower, and in 1980, purchased it for $2 million, renaming it Metropolitan Tower. Metropolitan was acquired by First National Bank in 1985, changed its name in 1987 to Metropolitan National Bank, and in 2002 took the name of its parent company and became First National Bank. With the name change for the bank came another name change for the building, which became First National Tower. In 2007, First National Bank sold the tower to a Cleveland-based investment group led by Lou Frangos, while maintaining its name and operations in the building. Currently, most space in the building rents for $9 per square foot a year (comparable rents downtown in Columbus, where I live, range between $12 and $30 per square foot).

The building has gone through changes of ownership and name. To me, it will always be Central Tower.  I’m glad it’s distinctive architecture and features have been preserved and recognized. I hope it will be part of the renewal of downtown Youngstown and continue to stand head and shoulders above other buildings in the city.