Almost 100 feet tall and constructed of 2.5-inch-thick plate steel lined with refractory brick, the iron cupolas at the Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Swissvale and Rankin, Pennsylvania, are extremely rare examples of pre-World War II iron-making technology. Since the collapse of the Pittsburgh region’s steel industry and the dismantling of most of the mills along the waterways of southwestern Pennsylvania, the Carrie Furnaces are the only non-operative blast furnaces in the area that remain standing. A visit to the Carrie Furnaces is like stepping into a cathedral of iron and steel. The architecture is both overwhelming and inspiring. This is a sculptor’s paradise, and it also happens to be one of the sites for the 26th International Sculpture Conference, “Sculpture in Context: Tradition and Innovation.”
Place matters, and tradition and innovation surround this National Historic Landmark. Built in the late 1880s, the Carrie Furnaces produced iron for the Homestead Works steel operation (after 1898), which was owned by Andrew Carnegie, and then US Steel (Henry Clay Frick). Iron flowed from its seven cupola furnaces for close to 100 years. Furnaces 6 and 7 are the only ones that still remain on the site. During the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Carrie 6 and 7 consumed approximately four tons of raw iron ore, coke, and limestone for every ton of iron produced. The cooling system for the blast furnace required more than 5,000,000 gallons of water a day, all supplied by the Monongahela River. The furnaces reached their peak production in the 1950s and ’60s, when they were producing 1,000–1,250 tons of iron a day. It was here, just outside Pittsburgh, that steel became synonymous with American progress and industrial revolution. This is the birthplace of American big steel. From these furnaces flowed the molten alloy that was formed into many monumental icons of the American built environment, including the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
US Steel ceased operations at the Carrie Furnaces in 1984. When the site was sold to the Park Corporation in 1988, the company started to dismantle and salvage the steel structures and machinery. During that time, many local artists would jump the fence and explore the derelict site, including the locally famous Industrial Arts Cooperative (IAC), a rogue group of guerrilla artists led by sculptor Tim Kaulen. The group created monumental site-specific installations from materials found there and spent several seasons of dedicated effort creating the massive Carrie Deer that is still on the site today. Many sculptors and graffiti artists created passionate works among the rusting giants of the Carrie Furnaces.
The Steel Industry Heritage Task Force was also founded in 1988, the same year that the Park Corporation bought the Carrie Furnaces. In 1991, the organization morphed into the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation (RSHC). A visionary nonprofit, the RSHC was formed through a collaborative effort between the National Parks Service and the Pennsylvania County and State Departments of Conservation and Recreation with the intention to secure the Carrie Furnaces site. The RSHC now owns and stewards many sites of cultural importance in the Pittsburgh region, repurposing and preserving them for future generations. Its mission includes historic preservation, cultural conservation, education, recreation, and resource development. Through the tireless efforts of the RSHC and its main historian and hyper-passionate site manager, Ron Baraff, the Carrie Furnaces now offers a dynamic platform for the arts. Baraff and the RSHC have approached the site in an extremely open manner. Realizing that the site had more potential than just a monument to the region’s past and that it could be accessed through multiple forms of interpretation, they welcomed art as a catalyst.
Anyone who has a foundry practice or understands the steel and iron heritage of the area will marvel at the majestic array of buildings and cupolas that make up this unique campus. In the mid-2000s, local sculptor Ed Parrish Jr. started running iron pours at the Carrie Furnaces as part of his Hot Metal Happenings (funded by the Sprout Fund), whose purpose was to share with the regional community the fact that iron casting in Pittsburgh is still happening (at a smaller scale)—this time, for making contemporary art.
In 2013, two art professors from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP)—Chris McGinnis, a curator, and fellow colleague/ sculptor Sean Derry—formed Alloy PGH. Artists accepted to this biennial residency, education, and exhibition program receive the opportunity to respond to the Carrie Furnaces site. Funded by local arts organizations such as the Sprout Fund, IUP’s Kipp Gallery, and Radiant Hall Studios, Alloy PGH has brought in artists, historians, ecologists, and curators to help the artists-in-residence learn more about what it means to work contextually. Luminaries such as Ann Hamilton and Mary Jane Jacob helped younger artists, including Ricardo Robinson, Oreen Cohen, Carl Bajandas, Ryan Keen, and Edith Abeyta, to create fantastic installations on site during the 2015 program. McGinnis and Derry had the vision and the drive to bring artists to this dynamic location to demonstrate how the visual and performing arts can transform neglected sites into gathering places. The 2013 and 2015 iterations of the program have been extremely successful, establishing the model as a regional gem of an art exhibition that challenges visitors to experience the Carrie Furnaces in a whole new way.
At the same time that iron casting events and Alloy PGH were beginning to take shape at Carrie, landscape ethicist and photographer Rick Darke had been documenting the site’s ecological fabric. Darke’s passion for place and the site led him, in consultation with the RSHC and Baraff, to invite the Penn State Master Gardener Program of Allegheny County to develop a comprehensive plant survey in and around Carrie.
In 2014, the Master Gardeners—led by Susan Marquesen, Joanne van Linden, Addy Smith-Reiman, and Anna Johnson—put together a team of artists, ecologists, historians, and students to develop a multi-disciplinary approach to interpreting the native and invasive plant species that are surviving, and even thriving, in the disturbed soils of the Carrie Furnaces site. As part of their research, they addressed best practices in environmental stewardship and responded to the site itself with the Iron Garden Walk, which is open to the public and features a series of 10 interpretive iron plaques. First, the Master Gardeners consolidated their research to develop the content, which includes botanical illustrations from the Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon and descriptions of the various plants growing around the foundry, and Smith-Reiman created the layout of the plaque designs. The designs were translated and milled in high-density urethane (HDU) on the CNC in the Carnegie Mellon Sculpture Department by art student Lauren Valley. The patterns were molded by myself and Ed Parrish Jr. and cast on site with the Master Gardeners, CMU students, a large contingent of local artists, and Casey Westbrook of Carbon Arts. After the pour, the plaques were installed for future generations of visitors to discover through the seasons.
The Iron Garden Walk is a perfect example of collaboration between multiple organizations, using art and cast iron to bring people with related ideas together. The Master Gardeners, with the help of historians and artists, were able to realize their concept of how the site might be seen. By supporting projects like the Iron Garden Walk and Alloy PGH, the Rivers of Steel Heritage Corporation has been forward-thinking in its approach to how this site can benefit from its context, heritage, and public engagement.
The RSHC continues to diversify, bringing more artists to engage with the Carrie Furnaces. It recently unveiled a newly formed program, Rivers of Steel Arts (RoSA), headed by artist Chris McGinnis. Through RoSA’s multifaceted programing, the Carrie Furnaces is quickly becoming one of the region’s most exciting venues for the arts, education, and entertainment. RoSA has seen the benefits of multiple forms of community outreach and has teamed up with Parrish Jr. and Westbrook to develop Carbon Arts at Carrie, a metal arts program that will offer educational opportunities for mold-making, casting, and welding in the coming years. The groups are in the process of putting together infrastructure for a permanent foundry on the site, outfitted with a gantry, material storage, classrooms, and eventually multiple iron cupolas of various sizes. RoSA is dedicated to artistic programming that reimagines the future of familiar places, builds pride in community, and attracts renewed public interest in Pittsburgh’s Monongahela River Valley. It continues to evolve and hone its program offerings to attract new visitors from the local, regional, and global community to the site, while knowing the past and embracing the future. RoSA has already generated a substantial and eclectic program, including artist residencies, eco-arts, photo arts, urban arts (graffiti), film, dance, theater, festivals, and heritage arts consisting of a regional folklife center that represents eight counties in southwestern Pennsylvania.
During the 26th annual International Sculpture Conference, conference-goers will have a chance to visit the Carrie Furnaces for panel discussions, cast iron workshops, tours of the Iron Garden Walk, and an exhibition of contemporary cast iron sculpture curated by Westbrook and Parrish Jr. For more on the arts at Carrie, visit http://rosarts.org.
Joshua Reiman is an artist living in Portland, Maine, where he is also an assistant professor in the MFA in Studio Art + Sculpture programs at the Maine College of Art.
Watch these videos on the Carrie Furnaces