Niles aims to make Ward-Thomas Home ADA-accessible to all
NILES — City council recently authorized Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz to apply for $20,000 through the Ohio History Connection’s Ohio History Fund for accessibility improvements at the Ward-Thomas House.
The city plans to contribute $15,000, resulting in a total grant package of $35,000 which will go toward improving the facility’s Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility.
The city owns the property, but the Niles Historical Society serves as curator for the Ward-Thomas House, hosting events and providing tours.
Mientkiewicz said the historical society presented some concerns to Niles officials when he was still a member of city council. He said in 2019, he asked the historical society to have an evaluation of the site completed, which was delayed until just recently because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The evaluation was completed by Phillips Sekanick Architects, Warren. Mientkiewicz said the evaluation drew the city’s attention to some serious issues.
“ADA accessibility was a red flag in mostly all of the rooms and all of the buildings on the site,” he said. “ADA accessibility was a high measurable in the Ohio Historical Connection grant program. That’s why we had listed most of the projects within the grant scope of ADA compliance.”
Bianca Rozenblad, grant coordinator and planner for Niles, said there were a number of specific concerns the city highlighted when writing its grant application.
“For the main house, the current parking lot that we have has no (stripes) and no designated (handicap) parking spaces for accessibility,” Rozenblad said. “That was part of the grant, to bring the parking lot up to code. There’s also a created walkway, going from the overflow parking … to the main house. That will be removed if we’re awarded the grant and an actual walkway would be put there.”
Rozenblad said some of the door knobs in other buildings on the property would be changed from their current round style to ADA compliant door handles. Repairs to sidewalks also would be part of the upgrades.
Rozenblad said there is also need for an ADA compliant entrance ramp at the main house, but the maximum ask for the grant was $20,000, and the ramp alone would cost $36,000 to have installed.
ACCESS AND HISTORY
In planning for the potential building upgrades, the city hoped to strike a balance between increasing the ADA accessibility and retaining the historic nature of the property.
Rozenblad said the architect was able to find work-arounds in certain areas of the evaluation.
“The company that we had do the assessment, when it comes to ADA, they did note that there is a restroom in the main house, but changing that one to meet ADA standards would have affected the historical standard,” she said. “So instead of upgrading that one to ADA, we are able to update a restroom in (the property’s) greenhouse without having any historical character impact.”
According to the Niles Historical Society, the Ward-Thomas House was built in 1862 and was home to James Ward, who was “a pioneer” in the iron industry in the Mahoning Valley.
John and Margaret Thomas were the second owners of the home. The Thomas family founded the Niles Firebrick Company as well as Mahoning Valley Steel. The Thomas family owned the home until 1969, when the property was deeded to the city.
Through an agreement with the city, the property became the home of the Niles Historical Society.
Anna Marie Beagle, president of the Niles Historical Society, said in the 1980s the city adopted an ordinance defining what the city would take care of and what the historical society would do.
According to the society’s website, the home, now a museum, consists of 14 rooms with a collection of more than 5,000 items, including reproductions of several first ladies’ gowns, as well as artifacts displaying the city’s heritage and industrial legacy.
Beagle said for a city like Niles, which is rich not only with local but national history, the maintaining and improving of properties such as the Ward-Thomas House is vital. Beagle referenced the former home of Harry Stevens, which was destroyed in a fire in December, to emphasize her point.
“We’re losing so many of our historical buildings,” Beagle said. “When the Stevens house burned down, that was absolutely devastating. Your whole life, you could always drive up Robbins Avenue or down the other way and know somebody who was really important lived in the city and had an effect on history.”
Beagle said a key reason the Niles Historical Society and the city actively search for ways to improve its historical premises is to continue to be able to inform citizens about the history of where they live.
“We can always be proud of what this city stood for, and stands for,” Beagle said. “Trying to keep that history alive, and how proud we should all be of the people that settled in the Mahoning Valley and the Connecticut Western Reserve that we’re all a part of. We’re losing that, we’re losing so much of that because people are clueless, they have no idea of how important this area is or was or still could be.”
While the potential $35,000 worth of upgrades would go a long way toward improving the ADA accessibility of the Ward-Thomas property, Beagle said it is just the beginning. There are far more improvements that could be considered for the property.
“As far as an architectural firm, there’s over half-a-million dollars worth of improvements that could be made to this property to bring it up to code and to make sure that it exists into the future,” Beagle said. “In the past, we’ve not had the mayor to put the money into the property to keep it up, so the society has been doing patchwork repairs. Now, we have a mayor who’s definitely interested in keeping the Ward-Thomas property for its historical value.”
Mientkiewicz said the city budgets approximately $50,000 per year for improvements to the Ward-Thomas House. Because the building is city-owned, Niles is responsible for any upgrades to the structure and exterior, while the Niles Historical Society is responsible for keeping up the interior and museum.
Mientkiewicz said the partnership between the city and historical society is incredibly valuable to maintaining the Ward-Thomas property.
“The historical society operates off limited funding,” Mientkiewicz said. “When you can have both entities working in cohesion to pursue these types of preservation grants, it’s a win-win for all parties involved.”