Alleys & Ruins no. 92, Acme Banana Co. (2006, Pittsburgh, PA, 3am)
Alleys & Ruins no. 92, Acme Banana Co. (2006, Pittsburgh, PA, 3am)
Acme Banana Co.? Are you kidding me? It's a no-brainer - I have to stop and get this shot. Its 11pm, I’m alone and there are too many unsavory characters around, so I decide to return later that evening. At 3am I’m back.
The actual scene is rather dull, and the lighting is dead, so the only way to add the banana company to my collection is to add a lot of my own lighting. I've been staring at this building and walking around for 30 minutes, shooting test shots, getting light meter readings and looking for a good angle, when a man walks up to me somewhat hesitantly. He tells me he’s a company employee. “Hi, my boss wants me to find out what you’re doing.”
“I’m taking a picture of the building – I’m an artist and I work at night,” I say with a smile.
“My boss thinks maybe you’re a terrorist,” he chuckles nervously. A terrorist; that's a new one, I think to myself. I’ve been mistaken for many things, but never this.
But maybe his fear is not so outrageous. Its not every day someone takes great interest in an old warehouse late at night. I guess I can understand the suspicion.
I assure him I’m not a terrorist, and he returns to tell this to his boss.
The Great Banana Explosion of 1936
The large tract at the northeast corner of 21st and Smallman dates back to 1884 when it was home to the Star Fire Brick Works, a firm that made specialty bricks for steel mills. Decades later, it was the site of produce wholesaler Tom Ayoob Inc. and the Acme Banana Co, originally the Pittsburgh Banana Company. In 1936 a gas explosion in the ripening room at Pittsburgh Banana destroyed the eastern end of the building, blew out windows throughout the Strip District and damaged the original bell towers at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church across the street, forcing their removal. You can see the original newspaper articles in the slideshow above.
Why it was renamed I don't know but the 1936 explosion blew away almost 1/3 of the building.
The two photos in the Acme Banana slideshow above (see the B&W pics - from 1936 and 1966) present different views of the same street, taken almost 30 years apart. There are differences between the two, as happens with the passage of time, but one of the more important differences may not be what you expect. It comes as a result of the 1936 incident, five months after the first photo was taken. That year, only about 9 months after a disastrous flood, an explosion shook the Strip District, affecting one neighboring building permanently.
In the early hours of December 17, 1936, Peter Kavanek went to his job at the Pittsburgh Banana Company. He went about his business until a short time later, when, after Kavanek turned on an electric fan, an explosion rocked the Strip District and literally caused bananas to rain down over the area. Kavanek, mostly unhurt by the blast, was still buried by debris and bananas up to his neck until firemen found him. The explosion had such force that emergency responders did not need to be called; they showed up in response to the noise on their own.
So what was the cause of the blast? One idea is that it was likely the result of a business practice of the Banana Company: controlled ripening. The company had a ripening room, to allow for the bananas to be ripened on the company’s timetable. The bananas were kept at the perfect ripening temperature with gas heaters. Ripening bananas also produce ethylene gas, which is flammable. This means that a spark, such as one from an electric fan turning on, could have set off any accumulation of gas in the room. According to a Pittsburgh Press article on the incident published later that day, there was also a suspected gas leak in the area, which also could have been affected by a spark.
Though the photos don’t feature the actual wreckage from the explosion, they do show one of the major impacts of the event. The neighboring church, St. Stanislaus Kostka, features prominent bell towers in the first photograph, taken before the explosion. In the second photograph, you may notice that the towers of the church have shrunk, the former bonnets at the top being replaced by crosses. The explosion from the banana factory was so powerful that the force not only destroyed windows in the church’s school and other nearby buildings, it actually weakened the structure of the towers. The church has since renovated, but the tower’s bonnets were never recreated.
Some more back story
Plus a humorous video of the incident!
In 2010 I was doing an art show in St Louis when a woman in tears approaches me. She points to the large Acme Banana print I have on display and she starts telling me her story.
"When I was a little girl, me and my sister used to sit on these steps. My grandfather owned Acme Banana. They are some of my happiest memories. He was such a kind, generous man, and we often spent the whole day at his company, running around or just sitting on these steps eating ice cream or fruit. He sold lots of different fruit, not just bananas. I remember a lot of watermelon. But its all gone now. My family was very wealthy once but its all gone."
In 2003, Tom Ayoob Jr passed away. The 70-year-old produce industry veteran was remembered most for his integrity and fairness. He seems to have been loved by all. And he also appears to have been the bare thread holding the company together. Acme Banana shut down soon after. When I shot the photo in 2006, the building looked all but abandoned.
The Acme Banana Building, along with many of the other old industrial buildings in Pittsburg's Strip neighborhood were, very sadly, demolished in the early 2010s. They had so much character. The site is now a parking lot with plans for a glass office building.
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