STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINAMAN
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“Coatesville wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the company,” said LeAnne Zolovich, education services manager of The National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum (NISHM).
If you’re not familiar with the city’s history, the Lukens Iron and Steel Co. — which has the distinction of being the first American manufacturer to successfully roll steam engine boiler plates — is actually still operating as a specialty plant for the multinational ArcelorMittal corporation.
While strolling the Lukens National Historic District campus, adjacent to the Brandywine River Walk, you may hear machines, such as a grinder, in operation. Dating back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it is the longest continuously operating iron/steel-producing site in the U.S., Zolovich said.
One extraordinary part of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s iron and steel history is that a Quaker woman named Rebecca Pennock Lukens — America’s first female industrialist — was Coatesville’s ironmaster for close to 25 years in the 19th century. The museum has her story, and how the business stayed family-owned for more than 150 years; exhibits on the American steelmaking industry and how steel is made; paintings by German-American industrial artist Klaus Grutzka; a 1911 Porter narrow gauge steam locomotive; a firehouse with vintage emergency vehicles; and the exhibition “Pennsylvania Iron & Steel: 300 Years of Industrial Might,” which will be at the NISHM through spring.
Whether it’s science, engineering, the arts or history, “we tailor the tour to their interests,” NISHM executive director James D. Ziegler said of the guided tours of the Lukens National Historic District. He added that there’s a half-day option tour option, allowing visitors time to also visit Longwood Gardens, the outlets, or the Hagley Museum in Delaware.
On Nov. 21, NISHM announced it had officially acquired two Lukens Steel mill buildings that once made World War II naval vessels and tank parts. The 120-inch rolling mill and the motor house, which you’ll see on the tour, were built for $4 million to help with the war effort. Although the buildings are not yet open to the public, there are sights outside to stop you in your tracks — a 27-ton nuclear submarine sonarsphere manufactured by Lukens in 1984, and a Steelworkers’ Memorial featuring an 80-foot steel trident, forged and rolled in Coatesville and welded together in Pittsburgh, that supported floors one through nine of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. A few of the 50-ton, fork-shaped Lukens structural columns (which gave the twin towers their distinct, cathedral-shaped arches at the bases of the buildings) remained standing even after the WTC towers collapsed during the 9/11 attacks.
Ziegler said that a two-phase expansion plan to convert the vacant steel production buildings into the museum’s main exhibit and programming space also calls for a larger World Trade Center steel memorial and exhibit. The WTC tridents, which made their way back to Coatesville with much fanfare in 2010, will be placed in a formation similar to how they originally stood on the North Tower.
“This is like the forgotten Rust Belt — it’s not forgotten here,” Ziegler said.
Among the sites on the Lukens National Historic District campus:
•Brandywine Mansion, the circa 1739 home of farmer Moses Coates, then the family of Rebecca and Dr. Charles Lukens. The house is undergoing restoration.
•Terracina, built circa 1850 as a wedding gift for Lukens’ daughter, Isabella, and her husband, Dr. Charles Huston. It’s been restored with period furnishings to reflect how a Gothic revival house like this would have looked in the 1880s. Because it was a private residence up until the 1980s, there’s a mid-1960s-style kitchen that sharply contrasts with the Victorian feel of the rest of the house.
•Graystone Mansion, the stone, Collegiate Gothic (think the old buildings at Princeton University) home of A.F. Huston (Rebecca Lukens’ grandson). It served as Coatesville City Hall from 1939-1992. The house’s carriage house was once the Coatesville jail. The large weeping birch tree in front of the house is believed to be more than 105 years old. It is the NISHM’s special events space, and the upper story is lecture/classroom space for Harcum College.
•A Tenant House, built circa 1880, for the employees of the Lukens steel mill. It is undergoing restoration. “They were extremely paternalistic. They took care of their employees,” Zolovich noted.
According to Melinda Williams, the NISHM’s development manager, the next rotating exhibition coming to the Lukens Executive Office Building in the spring has to do with the America’s Cup yacht races.