By Natalie Lariccia
Federal Iron Works building
The building now houses the owner’s collection of Mahoning Valley memorabilia.
Tucked away in an almost isolated corridor on the city’s East Side — near state Route 289 — the former Federal Iron Works building is a large, yet unassuming building.
Its brick faded and worn in places, the building appears to be an antiquated industrial building — a ghost of Youngstown’s past, when the city was in an industrial heyday and businesses buzzed with activity.
But for Shawn Kriech, a lifelong area resident and 1986 graduate of Austintown Fitch High School, the old building at 100 N. Prospect St. is an empty canvas for creativity and an opportunity to showcase some of the Mahoning Valley memorabilia and mementos he’s collected over the years.
Workspace to showcase
Kriech, a ceramics caster at Fireline Inc. in Youngstown, purchased the building in the summer of 2004 with the intention of creating an innovative and industrial workspace.
The building was put on the market after the Federal Iron Works relocated to its current Columbiana location in 2002. At the time, the building was primarily unoccupied, except for a workshop in the building’s basement for Jim Sferra, a Federal Iron Works semiretired ornamental-iron worker.
“I thought that I’d love to have a building that would have a good studio workspace. I saw the [For Sale] sign, and I called on it — almost as a half joke. It was the right location, though. It was fairly close to downtown and YSU, where I wanted to be,” he said.
Kriech, whose primary residence is in Hubbard, has always had a fascination with warehouse and industrial buildings.
While attending YSU, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and printmaking, he lived in various warehouselike spaces on West Federal Street, including an apartment above Silver’s Vogue Shop.
After his family members in the construction and architecture business determined the iron works building was structurally sound and the roof was in decent shape, Kriech began to seriously consider buying it. He made an offer, and for a price a little below $50,000, Kriech was the new owner of the old building.
It wasn’t long after he purchased the building that he began to discover the amount of work required to fix up an old industrial building. Much of the buildings interior was covered in layers of welding dust, soot and dirt.
“It was filthy when I bought the place. ... There were literally wheelbarrows and buckets filled with dirt that we were taking out of this place. I had to literally vacuum the walls. Dirt and soot had accumulated in the building over the years,” he said.
Kriech said it wasn’t uncommon for him to need industrial equipment to help with larger repairs, such as the backbreaking project of repairing a rotten roof joist.
“Sometimes when you have an industrial building, you need industrial equipment to fix it. ... It was such a brutal job. My hands were like little claws from trying to fix stuff,” he said.
Fast forward nearly five years, and Kriech has made slow, yet steady and creative progress. He has painted several of the interior main walls, beams and baseboards bright colors. He coated the main floors with industrial enamel paint and refurbished a main-floor bathroom, adding a shower and decorative floor tiling.
The building also serves as a storage space and showcase of Kriech’s extensive collection of antiques and Youngstown memorabilia that he has collected over the years. Highlights in his Youngstown collection include signs from the now closed Agora, Nyabinghi and Splendid Restaurant and 70 millimeter film reels from downtown’s former State Theater.
The Agora was a downtown nightclub on West Federal Street that occupied the former State Theater in the 1970s. The Nyabinghi was a West Side nightclub, and the Splendid Restaurant was a South Avenue cafe.
Sferra, meanwhile, remains a fixture who still works daily in the basement workshop.
A 75-year-old Campbell resident, Sferra says he’s glad that Kriech has taken an interest in a building that has been such an integral part of his family. He also appreciates Kriech’s willingness to accommodate him so he can continue working in familiar settings.
“I’m kind of nostalgic about the building. He [Shawn] evidently has some artistic talents that motivate him,” Sferra said.
In the family
Sferra’s father, Steve Sferra, was one of the original owners of the Federal Iron Works. The company was started in 1920 and moved into the Prospect Street building in 1922, primarily making steel components and iron products, such as staircases. In its heyday, the iron works employed nearly 30 people and made steel components for A&P Supermarkets, a national grocery chain, Sferra said.
Kriech says the building is always evolving. He thinks it could one day have potential as a restaurant or music venue.
“I’m not holding fast to one idea. The closer I get to the future, the clearer I can see. I almost look at the building like my art. The building is now like my blank palette that I can paint,” he said.