Years of commuting on the PATH train, the bland and comforting specter of a subway running between New York and northern New Jersey, have given me plenty of time to consider what cartoonist Ben Katchor calls the pleasures of urban decay. While careering toward Jersey City, the train suddenly surfaces with sonic force to an industrial landscape covered in phragmites, brown grasses that look like toxic wheat. To the left is the massive Guyon Pipe Fittings and Valves factory, an abandoned brick A-frame covered by rows of delicate glass windows, pale green and broken. Out the other window the Pulaski Skyway—a raised highway built in the twenties to shorten the trip between New York and Newark—dips off to the right where the train crosses the Turnpike bridge, a coal-black set of girders resembling an erector-set robot.
The place is so improbable, with its abandoned cranes and piers whose function was probably known only to a select few, that every visit provokes at least unconscious doubts that you’ll ever escape. The spirit behind the factories and bridges, however dismal and decrepit now, was one of a grandiose idealism. Seeing them, I can’t help but feel wonder at our force of will, what it must feel like, I’d guess, to arrive in Giza or Machu Picchu, or maybe a postwar battlefield. What kind of person could dream up such schemes and then imagine them possible? Perhaps it’s the outsized confidence of these plotters that impresses me as much as the structures themselves.
Today’s techno dreamers, though, long for the minuscule, the counterintuitive and therefore pleasurable notion that the compact is more powerful than the gargantuan. Transistors and microchips, slender fiber-optic lines: these enthrall the same sorts of minds that brazenly designed twenty-ton steamrollers and under-one-roof manufacturing operations. The absurd capabilities of an average cell phone or Palm Pilot may be wondrous, but they can’t inspire or terrify like a steel mill.
Those most passionate about the industrial landscape are the very people who have most shrunk that breathtaking scale to a low-tech whisper. They’re not building new, great monuments to industry; instead, they write papers about the history of the can opener, give walking tours of open-pit mines in Arizona and grain elevators in Buffalo, and deliver talks on powerhouses. They use terms like SHPO (pronounced ship-O)—for state historic preservation office—as in, “The building cleared Pennsylvania SHPO”—and HAER, the Historic American Engineering Record, a part of the National Park Service that documents most anything that might be considered an engineering feat, from covered bridges to power mills. They’re preservationists with a focus quite removed from the DAR-types standing guard over the relics of the white-wigged set in historic houses across the country. This world of preservation yearns to save and celebrate industrial structures; unofficially, their virtual headquarters is the Society for Industrial Archeology (SIA), an association of enthusiasts in love with factories and the habitats where they thrive.
I first heard of SIA when a cousin of mine was in the midst of an eminent domain battle for the machine shop he and his parents ran on the Elizabeth, New Jersey, waterfront, a stretch of land that constantly appears in your nightmares. It’s the empty, oversized place you suddenly find yourself in when you meant to head in a totally different direction. The environmental consultant working on his case had told my cousin about SIA after they had confided their mutual love of industrial ruins. I thought then that SIA must be a somewhat clandestine, low-rent operation—machine-loving wonks secretly referring to themselves as “industrial archeologists.” I joined at once, and was surprised when a packet of journals and newsletters arrived filled with articles that were not only coherent but meticulously researched.
They were not Whitmanesque paeans to gargantuan power sub-stations, yet in their dedication to things like “chord and web members” of truss bridges and tours of Ohio blast furnaces, the articles demonstrated an indisputable passion.The SIA Newsletter turned the inexplicable but sharp ache I feel each time I pass the Newark refinery—the exact sensation brought on by an unrequited crush—into something I can name.To be exact, it’s called the Bayway Refinery, the northernmost refinery on the East Coast, with the world’s largest fluid catalytic cracking unit. It gets crude from the North Sea and West Africa and produces more home heating oil in the winter, more gasoline in the summer.That is to say, industrial archeologists, besides their engineering smarts, have figured out how to blunt the pain of love by dissecting it—partitioning it into manageable, knowable pieces.
SIA’s newsletter, published quarterly, carries urgent announcements about the potential destruction of the last of the Great Lakes’ Hulett unloaders, massive standing cranes used to unload iron ore, and news bits like this: “Zahir Khalid, owner of the C&H Refinery in Lusk, Wyoming (SIAN, Winter 1999) writes that the refinery has been accepted to the National Register of Historic Places. Additionally, the Guinness Book of World Records has certified the C&H as the smallest oil refinery in the world.”
The newsletter’s bibliography doesn’t claim to be exhaustive; a proviso in each edition reminds us that the bibliography “is compiled from books and articles brought to our attention by you, the reader.” They’re culled from publications like the Material History Review and the Vernacular Architecture Newsletter, obscure titles meant for a specialized audience. But the SIA isn’t just made up of academics and engineers; there are plenty of starstruck enthusiasts like me who now want to read about the Hershey Park Arena, North America’s largest monolithic thin-shelled concrete structure, and histories of American steamrollers. And it’s we dilettantes who represent a sea-change in how most Americans see what industrial archeologists call “the built environment,” buildings, roads, bridges, manmade structures that were at one time utterly overlooked. But after the destruction of Pennsylvania Station from 1962 to ’64, a preservation movement directed at great public works was born. Architects and historians, horrified that a site as magnificent as Penn Station could be destroyed with so little public concern, set out to raise Americans’ architectural consciousness. Largely, they succeeded. Although the best-known battles were about buildings designed for public use—most notably Grand Central Terminal—commercial and industrial sites almost immediately became the focus of preservationists too. The National Historic Preservation Act, passed in 1966, dramatically expanded the domain of the National Register of Historic Places to catalog sites that were not only valuable on a national level, but had state and local importance as well. This immediately expanded the scope of the type of property worth saving.
The SIA bibliography is a good barometer for gauging not only the specifics of American preservation efforts but larger questions about overdevelopment; environmental concerns versus preservation ones; how we wound up with our current highway system and pathetic lack of mass transportation; and the impact of sprawl on the independence of children and others unable to drive. More generally, it represents a growing interest in the preservation of industrial sites—the annual lists of landmarked buildings across the country include many factories, rail stations, waterfront warehouses, and bridges.
If I were to create my fantasy SIA bibliography, it would certainly start with Joseph Rykwert’s The Seduction of Place (2000). The preservation movement might easily be critiqued by historicists as emerging from the market economy: what are renovated factories and warehouses usually used for anyway but high-end businesses and condominiums? Yet Rykwert shows that industrialism was embraced by both capitalists and their critics. Listing Marx, Engels, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and others as devotees of the notion of social salvation through industry, he repeats a story about Beijing’s mayor’s telling the city planner that Chairman Mao wanted a big modern city: “He expects the sky in front of us to be filled with smokestacks….”
Rykwert’s book is subtitled The History and Future of Cities, and in his meandering, remarkable way, Rykwert moves easily from housing proposals made by utopian thinkers—one called for a community designed to prohibit smoking and drinking, another treated crime as a medical illness and punished disease—to means of coping with mass city housing. As any tour of the churches and castles of Western Europe makes clear, before factories began to be built in the mid-nineteenth century, architecture paid little attention to the practical needs of common people. By the 1850s, housing (particularly for the working and middle class) became the focus, and soon, according to Rykwert, factory design—or the role of the workplace in relation to home—engaged many architects as well. Stylistically, architects swayed among Classical, Baroque, and Gothic allusions, while the Art Nouveau movement tried to break free of any historical references. While these style wars determined design for homes and public buildings, they also influenced factory architecture.
A more immediate force on design are the building codes that frequently favor automobiles. In Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point, 2000),Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck see the isolation of the suburbs as a direct result of local and national policies.
While this radical segregation of haves and have-nots seems natural to most American observers, it was by no means an inevitable outcome of our national evolution. Government policy might have prevented it, but it didn’t try. To the contrary, our suburban expansion was largely government-driven, and completely lacking in incentives to integrate different housing types or incomes among the new construction.
The result was suburban class divisions that mimicked the segregation of factories and factory towns. Inevitably, the expansion of suburbs influenced factory design and location. Duany and company note that during the 1970s corporate executives who had moved to the suburbs brought their companies with them in an effort to shorten their own commutes. In the transition, many factories became one-story sheds in “industrial parks,” a pale version of the Ford transplant to River Rouge fifty years earlier.
It is fitting that the dream library of any industrial archeologist can be found in a true American company town, DuPont’s own Wilmington, Delaware. The Hagley Museum and Library, dedicated to industry and labor studies, is housed, appropriately enough, on the grounds of the original DuPont gunpowder mill, nineteenth-century stone buildings set apart from each other on what looks like the bucolic campus of a pricey liberal-arts college. Last spring, the museum hosted a super powwow for manufacturing aficionados, a conference called “Reinventing the Factory.” Historians delivered papers on quality control in shipbuilding plants during World War II and the influence of German immigration on the design of breweries. One academic, David Suisman of the Parsons School of Design, even went so far as to apply mass-production rules to the songs of Tin Pan Alley. (When a song became a hit, he said, similar ones would be “manufactured.” So one successful song about four-leaf clovers provoked a whole string of them.) I thought the audience would ignore the paper, but instead they seemed thrilled that Suisman, a black-clad fashionista among the functionally dressed SIA-types, was seeing industrial archeology in a context outside of manufacturing:no paper got as much attention.
Besides the presentations, the conference offered a table full of some of the best current books on industry’s influence on pop culture, including Susan Strasser’s history of trash, Waste and Want (Owl Books, 2000), and a collection of essays edited by Philip Scranton, the center’s director of research, called Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America, published as part of Hagley’s Studies in Industry and Society. In The Rational Factory, another title in the series, Lindy Biggs, a history professor at Auburn University, looks at the rationalization—that is, ultramechanization—of a wide range of factory types, but eventually focuses on the changes in the Ford plant as the ultimate in controlling production.
The company started off in a boxy brick one-story building, a space big enough for the few skilled mechanics needed to fashion parts and put them together in a slow process that seemed fitting for the creation of a complex machine. But, with the help of a new breed of industrial engineer, Ford discovered, slowly, that using skilled mechanics was not the best method for making enormous profits. Assembling a car was studied minutely and divided into a series of small tasks based on time experiments done by Lillian and Frank Gilbreth of Cheaper by the Dozen fame. (The Gilbreths were students of F.W.Taylor, considered the father of industrial efficiency, who conducted similar studies several years earlier on the movement of Bethlehem Steel workers. The changes resulting from his studies were summed up in the noun “Taylorization.”) Unskilled or semiskilled workers were allowed to do only their assigned job over and over, resulting in what was then called Forditis, though today we might label it repetitive stress disorder. They were not allowed to leave their stations—as Ford put it,“Our factory buildings are not intended to be used as strolling parks.”
When the company eventually moved to its Highland Park plant, the shell of which was designed by Ford’s architect of choice, Albert Kahn, the Ford management carefully planned machine placement and the exact number of men needed for each team. Most revolutionary, the River Rouge plant processed raw materials and devised ways to get parts to assembling stations in as mechanized away as possible.
River Rouge not only resulted in a huge increase of profits, but also changed the nature of how factories were to fit into a community.At first, like DuPont, many were built in the countryside since, after all, they were modeled on mills and needed to be beside a steady water source. The countryside was also viewed as a healthy influence on the work force. In the Singer Sewing Machine Company’s 1896 catalog, the company brags that the pastoral setting of its Elizabeth, New Jersey, factory is “conducive to the good morals and excellent discipline generally prevailing among the thousands of men and women employed here.” Eventually, factories became part of city neighborhoods, or, as in the case of Elizabeth, cities grew up around the factories. Henry Ford’s Highland Park plant was set right in the middle of a working-class neighborhood; its powerhouse was displayed behind glass meant to be seen by passers-by using the city sidewalk outside the plant. By the time Ford opened River Rouge (with the help of some dubious government subsidies), his megalomania became incorporated into Kahn’s design: the factory buildings, equivalent to eight football fields of floor space when it opened in 1919, were set behind fences and railroad tracks far from residential areas. Meanwhile, Kahn was busy drawing up plans for the many corporate headquarters, once situated on factory grounds, that were then heading for the luxe life in downtown Detroit skyscrapers.Years later some of those buildings were part of photographer Camilo José Vergara’s 1995 proposal to give tours of twelve square blocks of Detroit’s downtown as a “skyscraper ruins park.”* In an article for Planning, Vergara wrote, “The place that invented planned obsolescence has itself become obsolescent.” 1
Of course, Kahn himself is the subject of many articles and five books (one for children). Federico Bucci’s Albert Kahn:Architect of Ford (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002) is the kind of book that only an art press would publish. Its glossy pages are filled with tremblingly reverent photographs of Kahn’s many daylight factories—concrete structures literally covered in windows and built with large, open work-floors—and neoclassical corporate skyscrapers all shot to underscore their gigantic scale. Bucci outlines the roots of Kahn’s philosophy: “Architecture is 90 percent business and 10 percent art.” Though that was disingenuous on Kahn’s part—his work was functional yet radical—it was just the bait to attract Ford. Ornament to Kahn was largely irrelevant: what made the building beautiful was how well it worked.
A large part of Albert Kahn’s success was his partnership with his two brothers Louis (not to be confused with the architect Louis I. Kahn) and Moritz.They created a very effective reinforced-concrete system that allowed for strength and flexibility, and founded a company called Trussed Concrete Steel (aka Truscon), with offices in Detroit and London. Form and Fancy by Joan S. Skinner (Liverpool University Press, 1997) is dedicated to the twentieth- century British architect Thomas Wallis, who used the Kahns’ new concrete system to design what became known as the fancy factories, buildings with very ornate exteriors made of brightly colored faience over concrete. What’s amazing about Wallis was his concomitant practicality—he was, after all, dedicated to creating working factories—and his whimsical designs of building entranceways. Skinner’s interpretation of Wallis’s garish exteriors takes SIA-ish fervor to a new height. She defends the fancy factories from critics who view them “out of prejudice and superficiality of judgement [sic] that looks no further than the pretty face.”
The book is really Skinner’s dissertation; for the most part, it could only be recommended to serious concrete devotees. Yet I would refer industrial archeologists to its pages for her reading of Wallis’s comically overheated symbolic system of design elements and her fierce defense of his work. Noting the great influence of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb on British architecture in general, and a Wallis-designed Firestone factory in particular, Skinner writes:
Mostly, in fact, the references here were Egyptian…. Despite the classical patera and guttae, and the emphasis of the company identity in monogrammed shields, the detail in path and doorway announce the entrance to the temple of Amun-Ra….
His rays burst forth in the fanlight in the bronze filigree of the doors and again above the round face of the clock-time being eternal as the diurnal progress of the sun…. The wings of Horus, the sun of Ra, the horns of Amun and the gothic F of Firestone are all contained within one motif at the base of the lamp standards.”
She sees even more Ptolemaic nobility in a vacuum-cleaner factory: “The vulture and the Wedjat snake together symbolize the protectors of the ‘Two Lands’ of Egypt. This Egyptian symbolism comes closer to a representation of the close relationship between the Hoover parent and its first overseas base than, say, thunderbird feathers worn by an Apache chief.” Did Wallis intend all this? I trust that Skinner’s dissertation committee, having granted her a PhD, had reason to believe her fevered interpretations, or at least, like me, they got a rush from her mania and thought that that alone was worthy of reward.
Whatever Wallis’s symbolic intention, his clients, like those of Albert Kahn and countless unknown engineers and architects, knew just what the buildings were meant for, Amun-Ra entrance hall or not. The tires and cars and makeup that issue from their factories have dimension and weight even if the Neverneverland grandiosity of the buildings gives very little sense of the rough-hewn world of the production going on inside. The items themselves may seem almost magically concocted, far removed from actual workers and machines.We live in a kind of green-card marriage with these products—they’re in our homes but we have no idea where they come from and, more deplorably, don’t care to know. Industrial archeologists want to right this injustice through a search for their stories, ones that usually start with one guy’s good luck and end with a lot of other people’s astoundingly bad luck. (Read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation ) to inflame your entrepreneurial heart in the first chapter—the Hardee’s chain started as a two-bit hotdog stand!—and terrify you in all the others with the plight of Mexican slaughterhouse butchers, out-of-work ranchers, and McDonald’s workers without insurance.)
But here, perhaps, a confession is in order: if I were to reread Fast Food Nation, the Hardee’s chapter is exactly the one I’d flip to first. I’m drawn in by the underdog-making-it-big concept, the same appeal of Robert Friedel’s Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty (Norton, 1994). For the industrial archeologist’s purposes, the story of the zipper—with its obsessive inventor, competing patents, slick salesman—is a study in how such a pervasive (usually ignored) technology became popular, what critic Sigfried Giedion referred to as “anonymous” history. “Arguably,” Friedel writes, “the zipper is the first machine that any of us encounters on a regular basis in our daily lives.”
He traces the zipper’s invention from an impossibly complex design to a workable one largely due to the work of a lone machinist working in a Hoboken machine shop. Though originally called a placket or hookless fastener, the zipper got its name from the Goodrich Company, which made rubber galoshes called Zippers that used the new metal fasteners instead of buttons. Eventually the name was applied to the fasteners themselves, not just the boots.
The best chapter of Zipper looks at how the hookless fastener became a metaphor for, among other things, loosening sexual mores. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley equates zippers with impersonal, mechanized sex, cataloging Lenina’s zipper-laden garments, her “zippyjamas” and “zippicamiknicks.” Friedel finds other examples of zippers’ representing the convergence of sex and machinery in books by Tom Robbins, Erica Jong, the movie Gilda, and even Lyndon Johnson’s words of praise for his staff who didn’t “run around with their zippers open.”
“Object Lessons,” Curt Wohleber’s column in American Heritage of Invention and Technology, a magazine with cover stories on the passions of Henry Fulton and the history of the helmet, offers short versions of zipper stories for a whole range of products. Each issue, Wohleber chooses some invisible little household tool and investigates its history, giving it the kind of loving respect that only the ignored warrant. Last year, he described the unlikely advent of the stapler, the struggle of well-meaning inventors to find a workable system for loading staples, the true sticking point in modern stapler development. (Along the way, the author lets slip the fact that the Hotchkiss stapler is known as the hochikisu in Japan.) Wohleber, intent on freeing us of our fixation with animate beings, does not shy away from descriptions of stapler technology, because he knows why his readers care in the first place.True love requires information about the beloved, lots of it, so learning that the internal piece at the end of the stapler spring is called the follow block is hardly superfluous to those of us who want the answer to the big question: How does it all work?
The bibliography undeniably traffics in nostalgia, and while that can go a long way in saving buildings that may be beautiful or edifying or valuable in a new capacity, it can deny the ugliness of manufacturing, particularly in a NAFTA/GATT world. Yet there is no glorification of the horrors of factory work. Perhaps this is because many industrial archeologists are engineers: they know how the manufacturing of products actually works, the deafening machine shops, sweltering foundries. Or, maybe it’s because many of them come from parts of the country where heavy industry and its aftermath are part of the landscape. Just flip through the beautifully laid-out pages of Federico Bucci’s book on Albert Kahn, filled with austere shots of factories looking like human-free machines, and you know it was written by someone who grew up at a safe distance from northern New Jersey. His scholarship would be appreciated by the SIA crowd, but his form of industrial love, I suspect, would largely be viewed as downright pornographic. For Bucci is presenting the factory and its products the way a good Fordist would—underscoring the beauty of efficiency, its streamlined simplicity. Whether he espouses that view or not, his lack of discussion of workers in Kahn’s factories would not sit well in the SIA world.
Every issue of the SIA newsletter offers several, sometimes many, labor-related titles in its bibliography.The Winter 2003 issue lists, among others, the second edition of Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Cliffords’s Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers and The Heat: Steelworker Lives and Legends edited by Stacey James and Jimmy Santiago Baca. If industrial archeologists want to know how the mechanisms of the world function, we have an even greater, if unspoken, fascination with the person who operates those machines and manages to live and work within that enormous scale. It’s the size of factories that is most immediately impressive about them, but we can only measure them with regard to ourselves. They may not call themselves industrial archeologists, but a growing number of people work to preserve and refurbish abandoned industrial sites, an arm of preservation that would have been unimaginable forty years ago. In Manhattan, a recent contest solicited ideas (not necessarily practical ones) to rehab the High Line, an elevated track running from Greenwich Village to Thirty-fourth Street that was used to deliver goods to and from factories and warehouses. The winners’ works were exhibited at Grand Central Terminal in July. One winner called for a mile-long swimming pool. Another, Vergara-fashion, wants to see wildflowers take over the remaining tracks. (The High Line District Map only includes what it calls “New! Penn Station,” referring to plans to use the main post office as a new train station to make up for the demolition that set the American preservation movement in motion.)
In Jersey City, John Gomez, president of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, rides his bike through those huge (and largely off-limits) industrial sites that are Hudson County’s riches. The consummate industrial archeologist, he climbs over gates and through broken windows to look close up at the guts of those forbidding buildings that we usually just see from the train. Through his efforts, a beautiful waterfront powerhouse was designated a national landmark though New Jersey had rejected it; he kept New Jersey Transit from quietly destroying a set of airshafts; and in a dramatic last-minute intervention, he and the Conservancy saved parts of an 1860s rope factory that may have been a stop on the Underground Railroad from what seemed to be imminent destruction. Yet Gomez, who grew up near the powerhouse and is fascinated by its design, knows that the object of his affection contributed, like so many of the nearby industrial sites, to the area’s pollution and a lot of misery for local residents. (His own father, who inspected buildings, now fights lymphatic cancer, a disease Gomez worries was a result of his father’s work.) Still, demolishing it all for new construction strikes him as erasure not just of buildings but of so many personal histories. For him, industrial archeology isn’t about nostalgia but the inability to say goodbye.
On the PATH line, Gomez has told me, there is a ghost station—a stop at Nineteenth Street in Manhattan that was closed in 1954. He has advised me to sit in the train’s front car and stare hard to try to get a glimpse of it. Though I’ve never been quick enough to see a thing, I’m relieved to know it’s there, untouched, a human-sized platform meant for people waiting on machines. ✯