Natrona begins work on row house museum

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 1:21 a.m.

For workers at Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there weren't many choices.

You were paid in money issued by the Harrison company, you spent that money at the company stores, and you lived in the company's row houses.

Almost 150 years later, the company and its stores are gone, but the row houses remain.

One of the houses will now serve a new purpose — acting as a row house museum.

“The row houses were created for returning Civil War veterans who worked at Penn Salt,” said Bill Godfrey, the president of Natrona Comes Together, which is heading the project along with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. “You were obligated to live in the house and buy all your groceries at the company store.

“The only thing you couldn't buy was alcohol. You would have to barter a pig or something like that, I guess,” he said with a laugh.

Godfrey said exterior restoration of one of the row houses that sit along Federal Street will begin this week.

Godfrey said some of the restoration inside of the house has begun.

“They were peeling off layers of the walls,” he said. “They insulated some of the walls with old newspapers.

There are papers dating from 1912 on.

“It's like a time capsule.”

Arthur Ziegler, the president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said project funding comes from two state grants, one for $100,000 and another for $91,000.

“About $50,000 went to purchase of the site and removal of asbestos,” Ziegler said. “Another $100,000 will go to further architectural drawings and having the exterior returned to original design.”

Of regional importance

Ziegler said the museum is important not only to Natrona and the Alle-Kiski Valley, but to all of the Pittsburgh region.

“This is one of the very few well-preserved communities of workers' housing,” Ziegler said. “Most worker housing that was in communities like (Natrona) have been removed. We think having this architecture restored is very important.”

Ziegler and Godfrey said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Pittsburgh, was a driving force behind the museum's creation. “Sen. Ferlo was the leader, the chaperone of this project,” Ziegler said.

Ferlo said that while some may look at the row houses as relics of the past, he sees them as a part of Natrona's future.

“These were some of the first worker houses,” he said. “ ‘Place' means something to a lot of people. The idea was to replenish one of these homes and make it be an operable history museum for the lives of workers and immigrants.

“It can be an attraction and amenity for people who want to understand the lives of workers and their struggles.”

Ferlo said the museum only adds to what he sees as Natrona's attraction for new residents.

“Natrona could be the kind of community like we've helped build in Garfield and Lawrenceville,” he said, of two Pittsburgh neighborhoods. “It could attract people who are into sustainability, gardening or art and want to find affordable housing in an area that supports those things.

“Natrona has a lot of assets, and this adds another,” he said. “It's safe and affordable.

“Harrison Township is a wonderful community.”

Natrona Comes Together's Godfrey echoed Ferlo's sentiments.

“I could see this becoming almost a visitor center, with changing exhibitions,” Godfrey said. “We're not exactly sure what we're going to display yet, but we're excited.

“It was either use (the building) or lose it.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance reporter for Trib Total Media.

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