Friday, March 17, 2017

Martsolf's Furniture Co. and Caplan Wholesale Grocery

The large three-story building that once stood on the southeast corner of 8th and Merchant Sts., which many of us remember as Caplan Wholesale Grocery, is one of the three Ambridge buildings I'm asked about most often; the others are the Slovenian National Home's triangle building at the intersection of Beaver and Merchant Sts., and the Ambridge Hotel on the northwest corner of 8th and Merchant Sts. All three landmark buildings have been razed, but not forgotten.

"Louis Caplan Grocery Co."
798 Merchant St.
Daily Citizen
August 25, 1954

Before 798 Merchant was Louis Caplan's grocery, the building was home to Ambridge's first furniture store, a branch of Martsolf's Furniture, which opened on March 26, 1904, the year before Ambridge was incorporated.

"Martsolfs" Furniture
Ambridge store opening ad
Beaver Times
March 29, 1904

Here's a Martsolf's Furniture ad from 1926:

Martsolf's Furniture ad
Daily Times supplement?
August 10,1929
Louis Vukovcan Collection

I've been unable to pin down exactly when Marsolf's closed, or when Louis Caplan's store moved into 798 Merchant, but it was in the 1930s.

The 1931 photo below, which came from the late Eddie Dzubak, Sr.'s collection, shows a June 21, 1931, flood on 8th and Merchant, according to a note on the reverse. The 798 Merchant St. store in the background still has a Martsolf's Furniture Co. sign on it.

Flood at 8th and Merchant Sts.
Martsolf's Furniture store in background
June 21, 1931
Eddie Dzubak Sr. collection
courtesy of Lesabeth Trzcianka and Eddie Dzubak, Jr.

The 1954 ad that accompanied the photo of Caplan's Grocery at the top of this post, indicated the business began in 1927. But as late as 1932, Caplan's grocery was on Duss Ave.

Caplan had moved his business into the 798 Merchant building by 1939, because that year's Beaver County Mercantile Appraiser's Report shows Caplan then doing business there.

People who worked in Ambridge area businesses remember buying a range of bulk supplies, from paper bags to candy and cigarettes, at Caplan's, sometimes having to brave the building's old, rickety elevator to get them.

Here's a photo that shows Caplan's in the background, also from Dzubak's collection. The circa mid-1970s photo was taken from Dzubak's Arco station, across 8th St. from Caplan's.

Caplan Wholesale Grocery across from Eddie Dzubak's Arco Station
circa mid-1970s
Eddie Dzubak Sr. collection
courtesy of Lesabeth Trzcianka and Eddie Dzubak, Jr.

According to Louis Caplan's grandson, Glen Russell Slater, Caplan worked in his store until his death in 1988, despite his Parkinson's disease. Slater remembered:
I used to love to work in his store when we visited when I was a kid. I loved being there! My mother, Louise, and my uncle, Ralph, used to work there every day after school. My grandmother, Ruth Caplan, worked as the bookkeeper there. It's really sad that it was demolished, and was replaced by a soulless CVS parking lot. My grandfather, grandmother, mother and uncle's life revolved around that store!
After Caplan's death, at least one other business, Capp's, another grocery business, moved into the 798 Merchant building.

The 798 Merchant building was razed, I believe in 2000, to make room for the current CVS parking lot.

I remember the Caplan's building well, although I remember being in it only twice, both visits in the summer of 1970. One time was to buy supplies for my bridal shower, and the second was to buy supplies for the Ambridge Rec Center's summer playground program's penny carnival. The two events were not related.
The name of the furniture company in various ads and articles over the years is given as: Martsolf, Martsolfs, and Martsolf's.

You can see a photo of the intersection of 8th and Merchant in 1922 in my April 24, 2014 blog article, cleverly titled, "Eighth and Merchant Sts., 1922". Slater's memories are in that post's comments.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Peoples Drug Store

Peoples Drug Store
598 Merchant St.
Daily Citizen 
August 25, 1954

Peoples Drug Store was once on the southeast corner of 6th and Merchant Sts. In the mid-1960s, that building became the location of a Thrift Drug Store.

So far, the most frequent memories of the Ambridge Peoples are of the "snaking" green marble soda fountain and its milkshakes, cherry cokes, and Reymer's Blennd. Plus the candy counter and magazine rack. Which makes sense, since many of the memories are from people who would have been kids when Peoples was in Ambridge.

Earlier in its history, the building had two store fronts, 578 and 598 Merchant. Here's a postcard circa late 1910s - early 1920s looking south from 6th and Merchant. The nearest building on the left is the Peoples Drug Store building in the photo above.

500 block Merchant St. looking south from 6th St.
circa late 1910-early 1920s
Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation

The Ambridge Post Office, Ambridge National Bank, Horlick's sporting goods and tobacco store, Barrett's drug store, Katcher's Music, and Katcher's Furniture all occupied one of the storefronts in that building before Peoples moved in.

Here's a Peoples Drug Store ad from 1960:

Peoples Drug Store
Beaver County Times
April 26, 1960

There's a Peoples Drug Store Christmas ad in my December 24, 2015, post "Ambridge Christmas toys ads, 1960."

As of now, I don't know when Thrift Drug closed, but in 1993, DJ's Skate Shop opened in that building. After DJ's closed in 1998, Keystone Rehabilitation Systems, which provided physical and occupational therapy, and, more recently, Let's Get 2gether, an events facility, have occupied that building.

If you know when Peoples Drug Store or Thrift Drug closed, or of other businesses which were once at 598 Merchant, please leave a comment.

Here's what 598 Merchant looked like in March 2014:

598 Merchant St.
March 30, 2014
credit: Nancy Knisley

Here's the August 2016 street view:

598 Merchant St.
Google street view
August 2016

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Ohio River Blvd. extended Allegheny Co. line to Ambridge's 8th St.

Ohio River Blvd., which now runs from Pittsburgh to New Brighton, was built in phases, each one extending the road further north. By the late 1930s, the boulevard had been extended as far as Emsworth. From there, vehicles needed to travel via local roads through towns like Emsworth, Sewickley, Edgeworth, Leetsdale, Ambridge, and further north.

Given the ever-increasing vehicle traffic and congested roads, Beaver County officials and business leaders were anxious for the "superhighway" to extend into the Beaver Valley, envisioning a road that went as far north as New Brighton, or perhaps, even as far as the Ohio border.

In October 1930, a committee from Ambridge's Board of Trade met with the Beaver County Engineer in Ambridge to study the road's best route through Ambridge. At the time, Park Road was the most western street in the southern end of town. The 1924 photo below shows what served as a road east of the railroad tracks at the American Bridge Co.

Area to the east of the railroad tracks at American Bridge Co.
July 2, 1924
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

WWII spurred the boulevard's extension from Edgeworth, where it ended at the time, to American Bridge Company's Navy Shipyard in Leetsdale, where vital LSTs were built, and in 1945 - 46 to 8th St. in Ambridge.

This 1945 War Department aerial gives a good view of American Bridge and the south end of Ambridge before Ohio River Blvd. was built between them:

Aerial map of American Bridge and south Ambridge
U.S. War Dept.
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

The photos below show some of the progress of construction from the Allegheny Co. line to 8th St.

The first photo shows the work being done between the American Bridge Co. office building on the far right and the railroad station platforms.

"Progress Photograph of Ohio River Boulevard"
April 11, 1945
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

"Progress Photograph of Ohio River Boulevard"
April 11, 1945
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

The photo below shows the 200 and 300 block of Park Rd. (200 block to right, 300 block center and left) in the background beyond the parked cars. The houses in the photo are still there. I think the structure in the forground on the very left is the corner of the elevated train station.

"Progress Photograph of Ohio River Boulevard"
April 11, 1945
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

"Progress on Ohio River Boulevard"
May 2, 1945
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

"View from Plant Bridge To Leetsdale"
"Progress on Ohio River Boulevard"
July 5, 1945
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

The new Ambridge section of the boulevard was formally opened October 15, 1946.

From the boulevard, drivers wishing to continue north would turn right on 8th St., then eventually make a left onto Duss Ave.  

The boulevard's dead end at 8th St. was the site of a number of accidents over the years, with some drivers failing to notice that the road ended, and semi trucks having difficulty making the turn onto 8th St.

A further extension of Ohio River Blvd. from 8th St. to Baden opened in 1960.

Friday, January 27, 2017

American Bridge Co. office under construction

In late 1902, the American Bridge Co. bought land to built a massive structural steel fabrication plant along the Ohio River in the area that would be incorporated as Ambridge in 1905. The company wasted no time in erecting the plant buildings, plus a large office building.

The office building, located on Park Rd. near the intersection of what is now 4th St., was under construction in this 1903 photo:

American Bridge Co. office building under construction
courtesy Gary Augustine

A news photo showing the office a little further along towards completion is in my February 16, 2014, blog article, "The American Bridge office: Going up and coming down."

The postcard below shows the office's Park Rd. side after construction was completed:

"Office of American Bridge Co."
postmarked June 1908

After American Bridge Co. closed the Ambridge plant in 1984, the office remained empty, neglected, and deteriorating until it was razed in 2014.

Here's the reverse side of the postcard:

reverse of postcard

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Ambridge's "crackerbox" tenements

I don't know why so many people ask about Ambridge's "crackerbox" housing. Perhaps it's because they came across a photo with a building labeled "crackerbox" and want to know more about it. Or maybe it's because they are confused, since the photo they find doesn't match their memories of a building they remember as the "crackerbox." Maybe they're just intrigued by the "crackerbox" name.

Ambridge once had at least two groups of flimsy, crowded, and plain tenement apartments referred to as "crackerboxes." And that's one source of confusion.

Crackerbox #1:
People sometimes come across this 1907 photo of "crackerbox" tenements surrounded by flood waters, online or elsewhere.

Local historian Bill Bowan owned the copy of the photo below, and it's now in Laughlin Memorial Library's archives.

Crackerbox tenements in flood
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

Bill Bowan's caption:
Amer. Bridge Co. - Cracker Box Tenement Flooded in 1907. Ambridge Pa - This is the last of several Tenements constructed for Laborers building the Plant from 1903. Located near the foot of 7th & Eighth Sts.
Although it's hard to see, there's an "x" below a woman in a white dress who is standing close to the west (river) side of the tracks. Bowan made more extensive notes on the back of the photo* which included the identity of that woman. Here's what those notes said:
Enlargement Scene from 1907 flood as seen at American Br. Co. Tenement "Cracker Box" Housing 20 families each - Row - Some with Boarders at one time 3 or 4 rows were there.  
Original photo owned by Mrs. Z. Bankowski #314B Wagner Ave Ambridge PA 
Copied April 1978 
X marks Mrs Zigmundt Bankowski's Mother - a resident "Cracker Box"

Did the builders not foresee that any structure constructed on the low land between the rail tracks and the Ohio River in that part of Ambridge would be subject to flooding? Or did they not care?

I don't know if that crackerbox building was razed as a result of the flood or sometime later.

Crackerbox(es) #2:
The other group of crackerboxes were two side-by-side tenement apartment buildings separated by a narrow alley. These were unlikely to flood, as they were constructed a number of blocks east of the river, on a hill above the 100 block of Beaver Rd., on land that, as far as I know, was still part of Harmony Township when they were built.

This snip from a 1917 Sanborn Insurance map shows the location of the crackerboxes. They're the large yellow rectangles labeled "tenements." By then, the land they were on had been annexed by Ambridge.

Location of crackerbox tenements
100 block of Beaver Rd.
snip from 1917 Sanborn Insurance map

These buildings survived longer than the one in the flood photo above, and much longer than its neighbors and Ambridge authorities would have preferred.

The photo below is from the private collection of Karl Urda, grandson of Charles Kristufek, who built the two crackerbox buildings under contract. Urda said that while Kristufek reluctantly agreed to manage the apartments after he built them, he never owned them.

Crackerbox tenements
circa 1910
courtesy of Karl Urda

Urda told me that the crackerboxes were "built as slums," and they remained that until they were razed 50 years later. The two buildings were home to the poorest of the poor and people who had no other housing options in Ambridge, including black residents. Rent originally was $1 a month.

Urda said the crackerbox apartments were built without bathrooms or kitchens, although a communal kitchen was located at the end of each hallway. Outhouses were in the back of the buildings; later, those were replaced by communal toilets and tubs.

These crackerboxes were considered a blight on the lower Ambridge neighborhood for years, perhaps from the day they were constructed.

On November 18, 1955, a fire that began on the third floor of the 120 Beaver Rd. building routed residents. Depending on which local paper you relied on, either 12 or 20 families were forced to flee. And the damage was estimated at either $5,000 (Daily Citizen and Beaver Valley Times) or between $35,000 and $50,000 (Pittsburgh Post Gazette).

Crackerbox fire
Daily Citizen
November 19, 1955
(handwritten date of 1958 is wrong)
Louis Vukovcan collection

Daily Citizen caption:
CENTER OF THE FIRE IN THE "CRACKER-BOX" Friday night was covered from all angles by members of fire departments from Ambridge and the immediate area.

The Daily Citizen article said:
Called (sic) living conditions deplorable and a slum which has no place in Ambridge, councilmen and health authorities have been caustic in their criticism in past years of the housing. Efforts to have the structures razed have been snagged from time to time.
Persons who have kept up a running fight against the "eye-sore" and included are borough officials and people generally, the next move by Owner Snyder will be watched.

The Beaver Valley Times article about the fire noted "the fire department has been trying to have the building condemned for some time."

"Owner Snyder" was Dr. A. M. Snyder of Pittsburgh.

The borough was still complaining about the conditions of the building the year after the fire. The May 24, 1956, Beaver Valley Times reported that Snyder had been given until June 8 to submit a plan to improve the buildings to meet the Ambridge housing code.

The next year, Snyder finally took some minimal action and razed some sheds near the crackerboxes. The May 15, 1957, Beaver Valley Times reported that other improvements to bring the property up to code were still needed. The Times also said that the Ambridge council had "reached the end of their patience" and "hinted" that if Snyder didn't bring his buildings up to code, he would be fined. I haven't yet found information about what action, if any, the council may have taken against Snyder and when.

I'm not sure of the date of the photo below, also from Bowan's collection, but it may be shortly before the crackerboxes finally were razed to make room for public housing.

Crackerbox Tenement
circa 1960
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

Several more years passed before the November 26, 1960, Beaver County Times could report that the crackerboxes, a "notorious Ambridge eyesore," would finally be razed "to the regret of few people in the community."

Razing of crackerbox tenements
Beaver County Times
December 3, 1960

Times caption:
RAZING CRACKER BOX APARTMENTS -- Workmen are putting finishing touches to demolition work at the site where two three story frame tenement buildings know (sic) as "the cracker box," Merchant Street and Beaver Road, stood. They will be replaced by a three-story brick and concrete apartment building to accommodate 26 families of low and moderate income. Two other housing units also will be constructed in Ambridge by the Beaver County Housing authority. 

The building at 300 Locust St. that replaced the crackerboxes provides subsidized family housing.

P. J. Shotter took this recent photo of that building from the Merchant St. side.

300 Locust St. from Merchant St.
January 22, 2017
credit: P. J. Shotter
used with permission

* Bowan also provided some information on the buildings shown in the photo on the west bank of the Ohio: "Stable and Hotel with Out buildings across the River below todays 11th St Bridge at 'West Economy'"

** The late Charles Kristufek, a harness maker by trade, built many of Ambridge's early buildings--houses, commercial buildings, churches, and convents. Later he became one of Ambridge's most prominent businessmen. He started a bank that he later sold to Mellon Bank, and he built and owned the large Economy Lumber and Building Co. on Duss Ave. His successful real estate and insurance business, The Kristufek Agency, is now in the hands of his grandson, Karl Urda.