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.

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