By EMMALEE C. TORISK
By next spring, a step through the doorway of 50 Chambers St. will be like a step back in time to 1918.
That’s the same year the two-story unit, made of prefabricated, rebar-reinforced concrete slabs assembled with cranes and topped with a tile roof, was built by the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. for a steelworker and his family.
Like all other original units in the 6-acre complex of row houses, 50 Chambers St. offered its residents a host of amenities — hot and cold running water, gas, electric — that very few American working-class families had access to at the time.
But unlike the 200-some other original units, many of which have fallen into disrepair in recent years, this residence survived intact, looking much as it did on the day its first tenant moved in.
It was the perfect choice, then, to house a museum operated by the nonprofit Iron Soup Historical Preservation Co., which owns more than 20 of the 179 remaining units, has renovated and rents out four of them; it works to preserve and revitalize the national historic site.
“We want people to get a feel for how incredible it was to live there in 1918,” said Tim Sokoloff, the president and chairman of Iron Soup. “It was an unprecedented level of living for the average worker.”
With the museum, Iron Soup — which is based a few doors down from the proposed museum site, at 40 Chambers St. — intends to help visitors understand what life was like in the world’s first modern apartment complex, back when immigrants flocked to the city to work in its bustling steel mills.
The unit, which retains many of its original fixtures, will be fully restored, down to the installation of authentic windows and doors. It also will be filled with period furnishings and appliances, while artifacts — like a hard hat used by a Campbell Works employee, or a framed black-and-white photograph snapped years ago by a resident — will be scattered throughout, as well.
“You’ll get a little bit of an idea what the guy coming home from work and sitting in his living room was looking at, or what a lady married to a mill worker might have in her kitchen,” Sokoloff said. “We want to keep as close to the period as we can.”
April Caruso-Richards, an Iron Soup volunteer who has a master’s degree in history with a concentration in museum studies, said exhibits contained within the unit will explore the 1916 workers’ strike that spurred creation of the complex, the revolutionary construction of the row houses, and the daily lives of those who resided in the company homes in their heyday, among other topics.
In addition, a portion of the upstairs could serve as a reference library, stocked with resources about the company homes and steel production in the Mahoning Valley — the latter of which Caruso-Richards said many Youngstown residents have all but forgotten about, as “a lot of bad memories of the mills closing down” have overshadowed past contributions to the area.
“It’s important that we remember,” she said. “It’s time to put the past behind us, in terms of them shutting down, and time to start honoring all the things they did to build this Valley.”
Caruso-Richards added that the museum — which she estimated costing between $20,000 and $25,000, including full restoration and exhibit setup — would not only help people realize how historically significant the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. housing complex is, but also show them what it could be in the future.
For example, Iron Soup is at work turning the site into a self-sustaining community, powered primarily by a combination of solar panels and wind turbines.
Sokoloff added, too, that by the time the museum opens in spring 2015, Iron Soup likely will have all units it owns up and running, and also will have acquired numerous others — perhaps even the row it wants to one day fill with a gift shop and various small businesses.
Linda Gens, the executive director of Iron Soup, said the idea of building this type of community isn’t all that far-fetched, especially as the economic downtown has triggered an interest in local historical tourism.
Plus, Iron Soup had already been receiving an influx of interested visitors to the former company homes, many of them family members of former steelworkers or history students from area universities, and soon realized it lacked a central location in which to receive them and display related artifacts, Gens explained.
She added that she hopes the Iron Soup museum is just the start of a network of local “things to see,” or reasons “why people would come here,” which might include the Youngstown Steel Heritage Museum and the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor. And though Iron Soup still has a fair amount of work to do before its full vision is a reality, people have taken notice, Gens said.
“They’re coming,” she said. “They’re interested in history, whatever condition it is in, and they want to come and see it anyway.”
Iron Soup is accepting volunteers for the museum and other projects. For more information about Iron Soup, or to donate to its cause, visit www.ironsoup.com.