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Return of the Club: Youngstown’s Good Old Days Reborn on the Fifth Floor

Return of the Club: Youngstown’s Good Old Days Reborn on the Fifth Floor

By Vince Guerrieri

All George Guarnieri was looking for was a liquor license. What he found was the remnants of a Youngstown institution.

Guarnieri owned an Italian restaurant in the Youngstown area, but had sold it, ostensibly to retire. Yet, he was looking to buy a liquor license just in case he wanted to open another restaurant. He met with Rich Mills, president of Ohio One, which owns several buildings in downtown Youngstown.

Among Ohio One’s holdings were the Commerce Building, which served as the final home for the venerable Youngstown Club from 1989 until its closing in 2012. The club started in 1902 as the city’s industrial might was on the rise, but had become a relic by the dawn of the 21st century, ultimately done in by a confluence of factors: the precipitous decline in the moneyed and professional class in the Youngstown area, exclusivity and homogeneity in an era when both were no longer prized, and a nationwide trend of declining membership in city and country clubs.

[courtesy of Youngstown Club]

The refurbished Youngstown Club dining room after the 1963 fire. [courtesy of Youngstown Club]

Since the club’s closing, Mills had been looking for a new restaurant atop the Commerce Building. Although he didn’t personally know Guarnieri, he had come highly recommended. Guarnieri had visited the club before for a high school reunion – as the club’s membership dwindled, it started to host more events like reunions and wedding receptions. He saw the space, resplendent with ornate woodwork, and knew it was the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse.

“It was a beautiful space,” Guarnieri said. “I had to do this.”

Over 50 years ago, the Youngstown Club managed to literally rise from the ashes of a 1963 fire. And now Fifth Floor, open since April, has risen from the metaphoric ashes of the Youngstown Club.

***

When people like to talk about the good old days in Youngstown, they typically have the 1950s and early 1960s in mind. In 1960, the population of Youngstown was more than 166,000, making it the 75th biggest city in the country. Public demonstrations of racial unrest were several years away, and the student demonstrations that could be found throughout Ohio and the nation weren’t yet in full bloom. Unions were able to give the working class a middle class lifestyle (the Youngstown area boasted one of the highest rates of homeownership in the country, and median household income was more than $1,000 over the national figure), and mills were running around the clock.

Suburbanization hadn’t taken its full toll yet, and downtown Youngstown was still a destination for shoppers and entertainment. John Kennedy himself had given a speech on the city’s Public Square a month before he was elected president in 1960. There were four movie theaters, two hotels and two department stores downtown, making it a hub of activity.

Many of the citizens of Youngstown didn’t mind mob activity, as long as they only killed each other.

But Youngstown in the early 1960s was also a hub for organized crime. From the 1940s into the end of the 20th century, the Mahoning Valley was good for a mob war every generation or so. In the 1940s, it was over jukeboxes, cigarette machines, and other coin-operated machines that were a lucrative source of revenue for organized crime. In the 1960s, it was over control of gambling, believed to be a $15 million a year racket.

At the height of the Cold War, “Ban the Bomb” meant something entirely different in Youngstown. From 1951 to 1961, there were 11 unsolved mob-related murders and 76 bombings. The Saturday Evening Post did a cover story in 1963, calling the city “Crimetown, U.S.A.” and sharing the sardonic joke that in Youngstown, barbers would cut your hair for $2, and for $3, they’d start your car for you.

Many of the citizens of Youngstown didn’t mind mob activity, as long as they only killed each other. In fact, most people enjoyed being able to put a bet down or get involved in a card or dice game. But to the city’s economic and civic leaders – many of whom were members of the Youngstown Club – organized crime was causing a black eye for the city, which just a decade earlier had been praised by Reader’s Digest for cleaning up crime.

The Mahoning Valley Industrial Campaign took on a campaign against organized crime. The campaign, made up of the businessmen and industrialists in Youngstown, had previously embarked on a public relations campaign in the 1930s as a push was made in local mills to unionize.

Early on Feb. 3, 1963, a man with a gun forced the night watchman at the Union National Bank Building on Youngstown’s Central Square up to the top floor of the building, one of three floors of the Youngstown Club. The watchman was tied up and left in the club’s office. He was able to free himself and, smelling smoke, called the fire department.

WFMJ-TV, not far from the club on Boardman Street, televised the fire. Temperatures near zero froze some hoses used to fight the blaze. The height of the fire also posed a problem for firefighters, who had to use the building’s standpipe system.

Youngstown Fire Department putting out the blaze [courtesy of Youngstown Club]

Firefighters make their way through charred remains of the Youngstown Club [courtesy of Youngstown Club]

Damage was estimated at $500,000 for the club and its furnishings, and another $500,000 to the building, which had housed the Youngstown Club since 1926. Robbery was theorized but then quickly dismissed when investigators learned that the safe, containing more than $1,500 in cash, was untouched.

The popular theory was that the fire was set by organized crime figures as a warning to the Industrial Council, and it has implanted itself into Youngstown’s collective memory. Indeed, a Philadelphia man with rumored mob connections was arrested and charged. But a disgruntled former employee confessed to the fire, along with a series of hold-ups, and made no mention of his purported mob-backed accomplice. Police discounted the idea that it was part of an intimidation campaign, and it soon returned to business as usual for the city, organized crime – and the club, which reopened with a series of reservation-only dinners in July 1964.

The Youngstown Club prospered. The Mahoning Valley continued to prosper. And there was no reason to think anything would change.

***

On Nov. 23, 1900, articles of incorporation were filed for the Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube Company. Small iron and steel mills throughout the Midwest were being consolidated, purchased by men like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube (the word Iron would be dropped from the name five years after its founding, a nod to the prevalence of steel production) was formed by local businessmen and investors to retain some local ownership of industrial facilities. In time, Sheet and Tube would become the largest corporation in Ohio.

Two years after Sheet and Tube was incorporated, the Youngstown Club was formed in the offices of the Youngstown Steel Co. (a holding company ultimately swallowed by Sheet and Tube) with 150 members. They were all white men, and all had names recognizable to anyone who’s ever gotten lost on the city’s north side, where streets are named for them. The five sons of David Tod, who served as governor of Ohio and a trusted friend and advisor to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, were members (Tod’s son William invented the Tod Engine, used in the manufacture of steel, and sons Fred and John were directors of Youngstown Steel), as was Joseph Butler, who counted William McKinley among his friends. Butler and George Wick (one of several members of the Wick family, who started the city’s first bank, and were charter members of the Youngstown Club) were investors that provided the seed money for Sheet and Tube, and they remain linked even today. The art museum created by, and named for, Butler is on Wick Avenue in Youngstown.

Fire s

the fire at the Youngstown Club as seen from street level [courtesy of Youngstown Club]

James Campbell, the vice president and general manager (later president and chairman of the board) of Sheet and Tube, Secretary Robert Bentley and Auditor William C. Reilly were also charter members, as were several McKelveys (the family owned one of the department stores downtown, and one scion, George McKelvey, served as mayor in the early 2000s), Youngstown Steel Co. President Edward Ford and Wilford Arms (namesake of the museum, also on Wick Avenue).

The club’s new home would be the eighth floor of the Dollar Savings and Trust Building, with furniture “said to be the finest that money could buy,” The Vindicator recalled later. The building, home to the eponymous bank, which had just passed $1 million in deposits, was designed by local architect Charles W. Owsley – another charter member of the club, and the architect of the Mahoning County Courthouse on the other side of the city’s Central Square. On the day the club was founded, there was already a waiting list, of two. Membership would cap at 150, and any new member would have to be unanimously approved.

Within a year, the club had taken the seventh floor of the Dollar Bank building as well, with four rooms – with baths! – to accommodate overnight guests. Sheet and Tube grew and prospered, breaking a strike in East Youngstown (later renamed Campbell in honor of the company president) in 1919. By 1920, the population of Youngstown had tripled in the past 20 years, with nearly 80 percent of the population being immigrants or first-generation Americans. They came to work in the mills and factories that had grown up along the Mahoning River.

Those mills and factories brought jobs, and those jobs brought money. There was a building boom downtown, including stores, movie theaters and the city’s skyscrapers – mostly bank buildings. By 1926, the Youngstown Club had moved into its home for the next 63 years, atop what was then called the First National Bank Building.

The transition went so smoothly that no meals were missed at the club, which boasted furnishings costing an estimated $125,000, including a marble foyer off the elevator, laundry service and pool tables – for the men. “The visiting women enthused most over the kitchen, which is the last word in modern equipment,” the Vindicator said in its Feb. 11, 1926, edition. “The ranges and broilers are equipped to use gas, electricity, steam and coal. For the making of pies and other pastry an electric oven is at the disposal of the pastry cook. Refrigeration is furnished from the electric ice machines installed.” Women might have appreciated the kitchen, but were not allowed in the main dining room until after 5 p.m.

The club was remodeled in 1961 – two years before the fire – and then remodeled again after the fire. By then, the club had three floors atop the Union Bank Building, with the 12th floor serving as the women’s floor. The 13th floor held the dining room, lounge and grill, and the 14th was home to card rooms. Nearly three-quarters of the more than 800 members still lived in Youngstown, but in some instances, family membership was maintained through generations, and some out-of-towners remained members for the sake of tradition.

But many people still used the club. “Youngstown is still a Saturday night town,” club Manager Fred Shaner said in a 1962 Vindicator feature. That same story noted that, “Youngstown industrialists, business and professional men like to step out on Saturday night and ‘go to the club’ for dinner. It gives the wives a night out and freedom from meal planning and household responsibilities.”

However, by the 1960s, people with the means to do so were leaving the city of Youngstown for its suburbs. Even Youngstown Sheet and Tube had decamped to a 52-acre campus in Boardman, not far from the Ohio Turnpike exit onto Ohio 7. And the movie theaters downtown were struggling to stay afloat, competing with drive-ins and multiplexes in the suburbs. A night out didn’t necessarily mean a night downtown anymore.

In 1969, the Lykes Corporation, a shipbuilding company based in New Orleans, bought Youngstown Sheet and Tube. The company formed to keep steel ownership local – and at one point the largest locally-owned steel company in the country – now had out-of-town owners.

But the mills kept working. A General Motors plant had been built in nearby Lordstown. Industry kept booming and the Youngstown Club continued along, celebrating its 75th anniversary with a special dinner in March 1977, boasting membership around 850.

Six months later, the bottom dropped out in Youngstown. On a day that’s still called “Black Monday,” the Lykes Corporation announced that one of the mills would close at the end of the week. More closures followed, and within five years, Sheet and Tube was no more. All told, 50,000 industrial jobs were lost, a crushing blow to what had become a one-industry town.

People left in droves as unemployment hovered near 20 percent. The population of the city shrank by 20,000 from 1980 to 1990, down to 95,000. Membership in the Youngstown Club also declined. By the time the club moved into what turned out to be its last home in 1989, it was down to 750 members.

***

Rich Mills was a second-generation member of the Youngstown Club. His sister had her wedding reception at the club in the Union Bank Building. The club was looking to renovate its location in what was by then the Bank One Building in the late 1980s – indeed, it was looking to reinvent itself. Once a haven for businessmen and industrialists, the club had become more of a social organization for professionals, who may or may not have lived in the city.

The Ohio One Corporation had recently bought the old Haber Furniture Store (“Tell your neighbors it came from Haber’s”) on Commerce Street, a four-story building ill-suited to any other purpose, but it did have an expansive parking lot – a rarity in downtown Youngstown. After a nine-month renovation – including the construction of an elevator and atrium – the Youngstown Club opened its new home on the newly built fifth floor of the renamed Commerce Building. Unlike the previous home, there were no separate spaces for men and women, who were given full voting privileges in the club in 1986.

Youngstown Club card room [courtesy of Youngstown Club]

The refurbished Youngstown Club card room after the 1963 fire. [courtesy of Youngstown Club]

The new home also offered more wide-open spaces for hosting events like receptions and parties. But the economy continued to take its toll on the Mahoning Valley, and the population of Youngstown dropped to 81,000 by 2000, and 67,000 by 2010. Membership, after spiking with the change in location, also dropped, to 580 by 1994. Restrictions continued to be eased, with Barbara D’Alesandro becoming the first female club president in 1994, and funeral director McCullough Williams Jr. becoming the first African-American on the board the following year. The club even hired a marketing manager to promote itself, something unheard of for any private club just a generation earlier.

But membership continued to drop, reflecting a nationwide trend. Nearly 1,000 member-owned country or golf clubs had closed between 1990 and 2010. City clubs, too, were becoming an endangered species. The Canton Club closed in 1990, and Akron’s City Club closed in 2003. The Downtown Athletic Club – home of the Heisman Trophy – was done in by the aftereffects of Sept. 11, declaring bankruptcy in 2002, and the Knickerbocker Yacht Club in New York also vanished.

Clubs were plagued by a graying population, with nobody else coming up to replace them.

Clubs were plagued by a graying population, with nobody else coming up to replace them – a problem even more prevalent in the Mahoning Valley (it’s no coincidence that as the mills closed, the rallying cry of “Keep the Young in Youngstown” developed). And the way people spent their spare time changed too. People who might have had the money to join a club didn’t necessarily have the time.

The Youngstown Club continued to limp along, sustained by events like banquets and receptions. In fact, Guarnieri said that many of the people who’ve seen the Fifth Floor since its opening at the beginning of April remark that they’d been to it previously as the Youngstown Club for an event. By the club’s last year in 2012, the only dues were a $35 monthly fee, a far cry from half a century earlier, when men paid a $300 initiation fee (equivalent to $2,200) and annual dues of $162 (equivalent to $1,200). Membership dwindled to 250, and finally, the club announced its closure after the annual New Year’s Eve party.

Ironically, as the club’s fortunes ebbed, downtown was becoming a destination again. It was designated an entertainment district, with an arena that hosts concerts, athletics and other events giving rise to a series of bars and restaurants down West Federal Street.

But while it’s possible to get a slice of pizza or a hot dog, fine dining options aren’t plentiful. There are restaurants, but none have the space that the new Fifth Floor has.

Guarnieri said business has been good, but even two years after the club’s closing, a generation after it tried public outreach to save itself and decades after it had any prominence, old habits die hard.

“We have to stress the fact that we are not a private club,” he said. “We are open to the public.”

Vince Guerrieri has spent pretty much his whole life in the Rust Belt. He was born in Youngstown three weeks before the mills started closing, and left there without really escaping. He’s a Bowling Green State University graduate, spent 15 years in newspapers, and lives with his wife and daughter in suburban Cleveland, where he’s slowly trending toward respectability (and he’s just as surprised by that as you are).

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3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    August 01, 2015

    Terrific piece, very lively and vivid. City clubs were such an important part of urban life once, it’s sad that it is not so anymore. Nice piece of writing.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    June 07, 2017

    I was born and raised in Youngstown ((Boardman) and my Dad was a Comptroller at the Sheet and Tube Company.
    I had many a wonderful evening at The Youngstown Club with my family…. such happy memories.
    I graduated from Boardmsn High in 1963, having been a majorette all four years.
    Thank you for an article that brought back some of those good old days, when I was with my Mom and Dad, and life was close to perfect,and oh so carefree.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    July 05, 2017

    I sold the Haber Building to Ohio One Corp in 1987. Contrary to what was stated in this article about it’s lack of adaptability to varied purposes, the bldg. – one of the best constructed in the city – was indeed amenable to the needs downtown would understand and try to position for as times changed. Prior to the sale to Ohio One Corp., the General Services arm of the Federal Govt. had selected it for the future site of the “new” Federal Bldg. that ultimately was located across from the County Court House. However, City officials and then Congressman, Lester Williams, worked collectively to get the Haber site removed from consideration. This resulted in the additional expenditure of several million dollars of tax payers’ money. Not always fun to do business – or try to – in an area as endemically political as ours’. No harm, no foul? We got “the job” done anyway.
    Jerry Haber, Former Owner
    Haber Furniture Co.

    Reply

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