What happens when you try to save something that was never meant to be preserved?
This is a question that August Carlino, president and CEO of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Pennsylvania, is trying to answer. He’s searching for the best way to transform the Carrie Furnaces, two blast furnaces built in 1907 as part of the Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead Works, into something that the post-industrial Pittsburgh region can be proud of.
“These things were never meant to be saved the way they were built,” Carlino says of the two remaining 92-foot-tall blast furnaces, which once produced about 1,250 tons of “pig iron,” used in the production of steel, a day. “They were meant to be put to some use and torn down, and for something else to be built there.”
The furnaces operated until 1978. Homestead Steel Works shuttered its operations for good in 1986, and Pittsburgh and other Pennsylvania cities that had built their livelihoods around structures like the Carrie Furnaces were left struggling to find a new direction.
Today, the furnaces have found a new life as an educational tool and tourist attraction. Tours run from April through October, and guests can learn about everything from a violent 1892 workers’ strike to the iron-making process itself.
Carlino’s vision for the future of the site includes bringing in more infrastructure for daily, year-round tours, and possibly building a sound stage or concert hall that could serve as a public venue. “What we wanted all along was to put it back into economic reuse,” he says. “It doesn’t need to sit there.”
Carlino is also seeking a designation for what would be known as Homestead National Park, a 38-acre area that would encompass the Carrie Furnaces, as well as several large outbuildings from the same era. Legislation is still pending approval by Congress.
Industrial preservation poses unique challenges. The furnaces went through three years of what Carlino calls “environmental checking-the-boxes” to make sure that problems with the structures were no more serious than the presence of asbestos and ferrous oxide, which could be remedied. “It’s far different than trying to save an historic house or building,” he says.
Ron Baraff, director of museum collections and archives at Rivers of Steel, has his own strategy for dealing with the magnitude of the project. “You don’t want to look at the place with a panoramic view, because it’s easily overwhelming,” he says of everything that has yet to be accomplished inside the giant rusting furnaces. “If you set realistic goals and reach those goals, you can then move on to the next ones.”
Another concern is amenities for tourists, such as bathrooms and running water. When the structures were in full operation, they produced their own water and power, and sewage was handled internally. “The place was never on the grid, it was the grid,” says Baraff. Water and sewer lines for the structures, as well as electricity, will be costly to install.
There is no set completion date for the project and no doubt that it will be expensive, but in some ways the Carrie Furnaces are paying for their own restoration. “Out of the Furnace,” a film featuring a string of A-list actors like Christian Bale and Willem Dafoe, was shot on-site at the furnaces in 2012, and Baraff calls the towering structures “the image that’s going to define the film.” They have been used as a backdrop for other creative projects as well, including a music video by rapper and Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa.
“Thousands of people have come through the site and I’ve never had anyone walk through and say, ‘Man, this place stinks,’” Baraff says. “We’re always looking, we’re always hoping, we’re always asking. It’s a project that is extremely important to the future success of this region.”
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