Remembering the Importance of Industrial Heritage

Posted on: June 15th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

Written by Priya Chhaya

Vulcan, Roman god of the forge, in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo: Alison Hinchman)

Two years ago, as a part of Preservation Leadership Training (PLT), I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, where the giant statue of Vulcan - the Roman god of the Forge - towers over the landscape, reminding residents and visitors of the city’s rich industrial heritage. As part of PLT’s requisite community tour we visited Sloss Furnaces, a 20th-century foundry being preserved and interpreted as a historic industrial site. Since I grew up in Virginia - the land of plantation homes and Colonial Williamsburg - the tour was an eye-opening experience. These furnaces are a tangible reminder of the sweeping changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution in cities across the country.

But saving places that tell the story of our industrial heritage isn’t easy. Last November a group of preservationists gathered to reflect on the challenges of saving these places, which are often quite gritty, in a state of disrepair, and surrounded by brownfields. But they are also incredibly inspiring and important. The symposium, which was called “Industrial Heritage Retooled” was funded by The J.M. Kaplan Fund. The discussions from the symposium are documented, in part, in the Spring 2011 issue of Forum Journal. Contributors identify the challenges of preserving these sites, while also defining the possible opportunities that these large-scale, abandoned sites represent for their communities. Turning them into museums is only one possible solution.

I found three articles in the journal to be particularly compelling. Each focused on the industrial heritage of a particular city or state: Pittsburgh, Montana, and North Carolina. These narratives emphasized how reusing industrial sites makes a community stronger. One of the most evocative statements was by August R. Carlino (president and CEO of the Steel Industry Heritage Corp. which manages the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area), who stated that “when the mills began to come down, the deconstruction was as much psychological as it was physical. Tearing down a mill, a symbol of permanence that had stood for lifetimes, was shocking. It represented not only the death of the mill; it was the death of a way of life - a way of life that was the only life a vast majority of the people that lived in these communities knew.”

2009 PLT tour of Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo: Priya Chhaya)

Preserving these sites is a challenge, but we hope that by continuing to draw attention to their plight and reuse possibilities, more of these places will be saved. For Forum members, Preserving America’s Industrial Heritage is available in the Forum Library; for others it is available for purchase on www.preservationbooks.org. Additionally, there will be a Forum members-only live chat with some of the attendees of Industrial Heritage Retooled on May 23, 2011. Visit the Live Chat page for details.

If you are interested in industrial heritage, then there is a good reason to attend this year’s National Preservation Conference in Buffalo. This year’s program includes a track dedicated to the topic - plus you will be visiting a city that is a living laboratory for historic preservation. Super Early Bird Registration for Forum members ends on June 30, and Early Bird Registration ends on July 31.

Finally, since today is the day that the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Places, I wanted to point out that one of the sites on this year’s list is the Pillsbury “A” Mill in Minneapolis, Minn. Built in 1881, it was the largest and most technologically advanced flour mill in the world at the time of completion. This National Historic Landmark is now under threat of piecemeal development. Some great pictures and drawings can be found in the Historic American Engineering Record.

Why save sites of industrial heritage? Because, as Duncan Hay (vice president of the Society for Industrial Archeology) states in his article, “Industrial structures are central to a sense of place. They are often the most prominent features on the landscape, visible to all who enter the community, and unavoidable once you’re there.”

Priya Chhaya is a program associate in the Partnerships Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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One Response

  1. Jodi Summers

    June 15, 2011

    BethlBethlehem, Pennsylvania has an admirable industrial adaptive reuse venture. The factories that once fabricated the girders for New York City skyscrapers have been converted into a commercial /social hub featuring a casino, restaurants and the newly opened Sands Hotel. After extensive brownfield cleanup, the steel mill site is again bringing in revenue to the community. Gotta love it!