The Penn Salt Museum will give visitors an insight into the historical significance of Natrona
Polish immigrants Stanley and Josephine Lapczynski arrived in the Natrona section of Harrison before the turn of the 20th century and settled in a cottage at 34 Federal St.
The couple raised six children in the four-room home owned by Penn Salt Manufacturing Co., which adjoined the Allegheny River and produced chemicals for household and industrial use.
Seven decades after the factory closed in the 1940s, the abandoned house was purchased by the Natrona Comes Together charity in hopes of turning it into a public museum.
“If these walls could talk, huh? said Bill Godfrey, president of the nonprofit group that leads preservation.
Godfrey and other volunteers have stepped up efforts to open the restored facility, recently hanging a sign to mark the building and also forming a committee to push forward potential events.
“When we say museum, we’re talking more of an educational classroom,” Godfrey said.
“We want to develop a program, but we have a very small space. We don’t want to clutter it with memories; rather, we want to give people a glimpse of the rich history and use it to propel our future.
The purchase in 2012 was aided by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundationwho helped restore the one-and-a-half-story neo-Gothic house.
Located among “Pigeon’s Row”, the plank and batten cottage was one of 16 homes along Federal Street that were the first to be built by Penn Salt. A similar row used to be across the street but was demolished when the property was purchased by Allegheny Ludlum, now ATI.
“This museum will be a walk down memory lane for those of us who were born and raised in Natrona,” said Patty Babinsack, founding member of Natrona Comes Together. “You remember all those things from when it was a boom town.”
Founded in 1850 in an area rich in brine wells, Penn Salt played an important role in the production of war material from the Civil War through World War II.
It was blacklisted by the Nazis because the plant processed cryolite, used in the production of aluminum for warplanes, and produced hydrofluoric acid, used to make aviation gasoline at high octane and spray cans, Godfrey said.
Over the years, Penn Salt created a secluded center for its workers through the construction of 150 wooden and brick houses surrounding the industrial plants.
Employees were paid with Penn Salt dollars which were used for rent and groceries in the company store.
Some of the houses that line the tracks belonged to foremen, but otherwise everyone rented a company house.
“In other words, all the money went back into the business,” Godfrey said.
The company houses along Federal Street were identical in size and design.
The ground floor of each house measured only about 14 by 30 feet and was served by a central chimney. They have steeply pitched roofs and side entrances, and the similar appearances created a cohesive streetscape.
Godfrey said new windows and a wheelchair-accessible toilet have been installed.
“We spent thousands of hours restoring it,” he said.
“One of the back walls, we pushed it with our hands. We discovered that the place was at one point covered in asbestos coating. We had a lot to do.
Godfrey and others believe that Penn Salt is an essential piece of American history. The plant changed the world for both good and bad, he said.
“In 1939 they invented DDT,” he said. “But it was also the start of the environmental movement after the company discovered it was dumping waste in the river.”
The chance to save an original house from the business was invaluable, Godfrey said.
Babinsack hopes the museum will further stimulate the revitalization of Natrona.
“It was a big city and then all the businesses came up the hill,” she said. “I feel that in due time it will come back.”
Anyone interested in volunteering can email Godfrey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tawnya Panizzi is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Tawnya by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .