Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Paul J. Ricciuti

Paul J. Ricciuti. Photo courtesy of Paul J. Ricciuti

Good cities are places where the natural and built environment complement each other. In Youngstown, the Wick Avenue corridor running through the university district is one of the showplaces of the city. St. John’s Episcopal Church. the Reuben MacMillan Library. Maag Library. The McDonough Museum of Art. The Butler Museum of Art. The Wick-Pollock Inn. The Arms Museum Carriage House. One man and the architecture firm he headed was involved in the design, preservation, restoration, or enlargement of each of these buildings. Paul J. Ricciuti.

I first became acquainted with Mr. Ricciuti when I wrote an article about my childhood pediatrician, beloved throughout Youngstown, Dr. James B. Birch. If you visit that post and scroll through the comments, you will see one from Mr, Ricciuti:

Good morning,
Thank you for the wonderful story about my wife’s (Katie Birch Ricciuti) father, Dr Birch. After he retired, he lived with us for three years in Liberty where he enjoyed his last years with his faithful dog Chico. He was a remarkable man and it gives Katie great pleasure that he is still thought of by his patients. We still have the famous “black bag”, which will be donated to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

We became Facebook friends around that time. As I continued to write about Youngstown, his name kept turning up, whether in connection with the design of Maag Library (where I spent many hours studying my last years of college) or the exterior restoration of the Mahoning County Court House (as a design consultant) or the Tod Cemetery Office and Chapel or the Tyler History Center. This summer, I happened to note on Facebook that Mr. Ricciuti had celebrated his 87th birthday and thought that maybe I ought to write an article about this man that has had such an influence on the built environment of Youngstown. Shortly after, a note from one of his children suggesting an article confirmed my instinct.

Paul Ricciuti is a Youngstown native, a first generation American of parents who immigrated from Italy. He grew up in Brownlee Woods and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1953. His interest in architecture traces back to his drawing teacher at Wilson who “started me drawing house plans and I loved the idea of creating a building on paper.” He went on to Kent State, studying architecture with Joseph Morbitto, who introduced him to Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, two major American architects. During the summer, he worked with Walter Damon, a Youngstown architect who taught him the value of historic preservation and restoration, which would become a major part of his career.

Maag Library, a contemporary design by Paul Ricciuti built in 1975. Notice how well it fits into the natural landscape. Photo by Robert C. Trube

He finished his work at Kent State in 1959 after taking a year out to work in Washington, DC. It was through a dinner invitation from a friend in the art department at Kent that he met Katherine Birch. After a tour of duty with the Air Force and passing his state boards in 1962, he was married to Katherine in 1963. Three children and eight grandchildren followed. They were married for 59 years until Katherine’s recent passing in October of 2022.

He joined the firm of Smith, Buchanan, & Smith, which later became Buchanan Ricciuti and Partners and later, Ricciuti Balog, and Partners. A major focus of his work has been education and the arts. A number of his projects were at Youngstown State: Maag Library, DeBartolo Hall, Cafaro and Lyden Houses, the McDonough Museum and the Wick Avenue Pedestrian Bridge. Other education-related projects included both the Mahoning County and Trumbull County Career and Technical Centers, a restoration project at McDonald High School, and projects at Geneva Ohio Schools, Kent City Schools, Wooster City Schools, Columbus City Schools, Alliance City Schools, Lake Local, Plain Local, Sebring Local and West Branch Local School Districts.

In his later career and in retirement, Ricciuti focused on historic preservation and adaptive reuse projects. A good example locally is the Tyler Center of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, as well as the Carriage House of the Arms Museum. In Youngstown, he also did restoration and adaptive reuse work on the Strouss’ building, the McCrory Building, the Tod Cemetery Office and Chapel, the Ursuline Motherhouse, the Youngstown YWCA and the McKinley Memorial Library.

Perhaps his favorite project, his pride and joy, was the Lackawanna Station Building in Scranton, Pennsylvania, now the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel. I’m going to let pictures tell the story of this grand structure, restored to its former glory

Highsmith, C. M., photographer. (2019) The massive Lackawanna Station building in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Scranton Pennsylvania Lackawanna County United States, 2019. -06-01. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

From Maag Library to the Tyler to the Lackawanna Station, and so much in between, Paul Ricciuti has produced an impressive body of work. A measure of this was his investiture in 1996 in the College of Fellows in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the first architect from Youngstown to receive this honor. He had previously been awarded a Gold Medal in 1994 from the AIA Eastern Ohio and the Charles Marr Award in 1993 from the AIA Ohio Foundation. In addition, he received the Directors Award of Achievement (2007) from the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, the Preservation Merit Award (2008) from the Ohio Historic Preservation Office for his work on the Adaptive Reuse of Historic Buildings, the Woodrow Wilson Hall of Fame (2015) and the Tod Homestead Cemetery Trustee Award (2022).

He remains actively involved not only with his church, St. John’s Episcopal, but also in a number of community causes that reflect his interests. His community involvement includes being the President of the Youngstown Symphony Society, Youngstown Hearing & Speech Center, and the Liberty Rotary Club; a Trustee or Director of the Tod Homestead Cemetery, YSU McDonough Museum of Art, Mahoning Valley Historical Society and Stambaugh Auditorium Association.

I asked Mr. Ricciuti why he stayed in Youngstown when someone with his talents could well have worked in a major city. He wrote back to me:

While still in college, I was offered a position with a national firm in Chicago, but I decided after completing my service with the U.S. Air Force to stay in Youngstown. My roots, family and friends were here and having worked the summers with a local architectural firm, I understood the opportunities here in the early 1960’s. I’m glad I stayed!

Mr. Ricciuti, I’m glad you stayed as well. Thank you for all you have contributed to Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. Well done, sir!

[A special thanks to Paul J. Ricciuti who provided in writing much of the background information in this article, the photograph of himself, and gave me an informal phone interview.]

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Grand Opera House

The Grand Opera House. Photographer Unknown. CC BY 3.0

Those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s remember grand old theatres like the Palace and the Paramount and the Warner, which is now the centerpiece of the DeYor Center. Before all these and before Stambaugh Auditorium, there was the Grand Opera House, located at 19 Central Square.

It had a regular seating capacity of 1400 with a main floor and two balconies. For special occasions it could accommodate 2000 people. Here is a seating diagram showing the main floor seating and the dress circle (the lower of the balconies):

The auditorium had a stage of 30 by 40 feet. It was served by two “commodious and neatly furnished dressing rooms” (Aley, p. 95). It had a huge gaslit chandelier that was only lit on special occasions. Allegorical figures representing music, drama, poetry, comedy, tragedy, and painting adorned the ceiling in paint. This photograph gives an interior view of the building:

The building was built in 1872, one of the many works of P. Ross Berry. The structure had an iron front that was 110 feet in length and 78 feet deep.

From 1872 until 1907, befitting its name, it was the site of many live performances. In 1879, Giles Bates Harber, once a local boy, would receive a hero’s welcome after leading an Arctic rescue. During William McKinley’s term as governor, he spoke at the theatre. In 1892, it was the center of 400th anniversary celebrations of Columbus first expedition to America. It served as the site of The Rayen School commencements. The theatre was remodeled in 1897. Then in 1907, Sam Warner began showing motion pictures there, the beginnings of the Warner dynasty. The theatre was closed in 1918 and demolished in 1920.

The Grand Opera House was a reflection of Youngstown’s growth as a cultural and industrial center. It sounds like a grand place indeed–one I wish I had seen.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dollar Savings & Trust

Early postcard of Dollar Savings and Trust Building

Somewhere around fifth grade, I decided my allowance wasn’t quite enough for my baseball card collecting (wish I still had that collection). So with dad fronting me the money for a lawn mower, I went door to door and convinced ten people within a couple blocks of my house to let me cut their grass and pay me for it. Back in the sixties, I earned about $20 a week. One of the best things my father did was insist I set up a savings account at the bank down the street from our home, the Dollar Savings and Trust. Our branch was located a few blocks from our home in the same block on Mahoning Avenue as Stambaugh-Thompson’s and an Isaly store. When I was young, I’d go to the bank with my dad sometimes, then we’d pick up some hardware for the house, and finish with ice cream. I had good memories of going to the bank.

I received my own passbook (with my dad’s name also on the account). Most weeks, I’d deposit $5 unless I had a very good week. And then something magical happened. Once a month the teller would add some money to my account that I didn’t deposit. It was interest and my first exposure to the idea that first you work for your money, and then you let your money work for you. I learned to set goals. I remember when I saw a stereo at Dave’s Appliance. I saved for months until I had enough money. I withdrew it from the bank and took it up to Dave’s and bought that stereo. Music never sounded so good!

Later in junior high and high school other jobs followed. I still cut lawns, raked leaves, shoveled snow, delivered papers, and then worked at McKelvey’s. I wanted to go to college, so I kept saving. It paid off. Between savings and scholarships, I ended college debt-free–thanks to dad’s lessons and my local Dollar Savings & Trust, which later gave me a small loan for my first used car after college.

The Dollar Savings and Trust Company (the “and” was replace with “&” only in 1975) was established in 1887. Asael Adams, originally from Cleveland, was one of the early presidents, beginning in 1895. He oversaw the construction of their downtown headquarters on the northwest corner of Central Square in 1901-1902. Charles H. Owsley was the building architect. Owsley and his son Charles F. designed some of the iconic buildings in Youngstown. During this time it reached $1,500,000 in capital.

One of the first tenants of the building beside the bank was the Youngstown Club which occupied the seventh and eighth floors of the building until 1926. In 1947 the bank had grown to the point that it acquired City Trust and Savings for $1.3 million. By 1970, with the opening of an Austintown branch, the bank had thirteen branches. Between 1972 and 1975 the downtown bank was completely remodeled, including refacing the building with a modern looking granite face. At the time of its acquisition by National City Bank in Cleveland in 1994, it had 32 branches, having acquired some other regional banks with $1,052,621,000 in assets and $838,150,000 in deposits. In turn PNC Bank acquired National City Bank in 2008.

About the time PNC acquired National City Bank parts of the granite façade deteriorated and crumbling pieces started falling, endangering pedestrians. Scaffolding was erected and repairs were made by 2011. However PNC moved the downtown bank to City Centre One in 2012, leaving the old building, now rebranded 16 Wick Avenue nearly 90% unoccupied. Several office leasing companies list the whole building as available and held by NYO Properties, developer of many downtown properties, that recently has been trying to sell a number of these. It is also listed on the “Abandoned” website which has a number of images of the interior including the bank vault.

Today, PNC has four branches in the Youngstown area, a far cry from Dollar Savings and Trust at its height. It reflects both the changed landscape of banking and the changed economics of Youngstown. None of the banks we grew up with remain under the familiar names of that time, nor are any under local control. But that doesn’t mean we can’t remember the role they played in teaching us to save, giving us our first loan or mortgage, helping us to manage our earnings and investments, putting our money to work for us.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Erie Terminal

I wrote recently about student safety patrols.  One of the fun “perks” of being a patrol boy was the annual trip to Cleveland to see an Indians game. We took the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad out of the Erie Terminal in downtown Youngstown, located at 112 Commerce Street, where Phelps intersects with it. After those trips as a boy, I never gave the building a thought, even though its six stories were a dominant feature in the Youngstown skyline seen from Youngstown State. I’m sure I passed by it when I was working at McKelvey’s. Passenger rail service continued until January 14, 1977, though it had been dwindling to a few passengers a day for some time.

At one point, it was a very different story. The Erie Railroad had passenger service between New York and Chicago.  Youngstown was exploding, growing from 133,000 in 1920 to just over 170,000 in 1930. Until after World War 2, the quickest way one traveled between these cities was rail. Four major railroad trunk lines converged in Youngstown. So in 1922, the Erie Railroad commissioned Youngstown architect Paul Boucherle as architect for a six story building that would serve as terminal for the Erie Railroad’s passenger traffic and offices for the railroad. After completing this rectangular Classical Revival building in 1923, Boucherle moved his own architectural offices into the building.

The building sat vacant after rail traffic ended and the Erie Lackawana consolidated into Conrail. In 1986, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Downtown Youngstown Multiple Resource Area. There are a number of historical buildings that are included in this listing for downtown Youngstown and the significance of listing is to deem the building worth historic preservation, which may qualify those preserving the building for tax breaks.

In the early 2010’s Dominic Marchionda, a native Youngstowner joined with a New York property group to form NYO Property Group. The renovation of the Erie Terminal (now Erie Terminal Place) was one of his first projects, which also include the Wick Tower and the conversion of the Stambaugh Building to a DoubleTree Hotel. In 2012 the renovated building was opened with a cookie shop, brew pub and art gallery on the ground floor and 40 modern apartments on the upper floors. The original wood doors were refurbished, windows were replaced to match the originals, and masonry cleaned and re-pointed. The picture above was taken before work began, and the before and after are stunning.

The property is a popular off-campus alternative for Youngstown State students, located near the Business College and just down the hill from campus. In 2017, the university actually leased five rooms to provide residences for seventeen international students. The building is managed by LY Property Management, which handles rentals. You can get a great glimpse of the apartments and other amenities at the website.

There are questions about the future of the property. In July of 2019 it, along with The Flats at Wick, by YSU, were listed for sale with Platz Realty. The university is in negotiation for The Flats at Wick. No buyer is mentioned for Erie Terminal Place, which is listed at $6.35 million. There are financial issues with the Flats, which is in foreclosure proceedings for default on a $5.5 million loan. Also, Dominic Marchionda, along with former Mayor Sammarone, and Finance Director Bozanich are facing 101 corruption charges for which they were scheduled to go on trial in June of 2020. All three had entered not guilty pleas to the charges. Recently, Judge Maureen Sweeney ruled to separate Dominic Marchionda’s trial from the others and subsequently former Mayor Sammarone plead guilty to two charges. Due to the pandemic, trial dates have not been set.

With college enrollments up in the air as is the nation’s economy, it’s hard to say what will happen next with this almost 100 year old building. It’s a survivor, and one hopes for many good years ahead as the university and downtown continue to grow together.

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

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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.