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It’s difficult enough to preserve a historic building, even when you have the time, funds and required expertise, but how do you preserve a historic industrial landscape? And how, specifically, do you preserve a landscape as vast and complex as the Pennsylvania Slate Belt, a 22-square-mile expanse of quarries, towns, transportation networks, and industrial wreckage in the Lehigh Valley?
For Frank Matero and John Hinchman, the answer starts with the web.
This month, Matero, chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and director of The Center for Architectural Conservation (formerly The Architectural Conservation Lab) at PennDesign, and Hinchman, a PennDesign lecturer and research specialist at The Center, completed a massive digital humanities project focused on the Pennsylvania slatelands, and released The Slate Belt, a web-based report that seeks to balance a depth of historical information about the slate extraction industry with great visual appeal and adaptability. The website is the product of more than three years of work and involved the research of dozens of students and assistance from Joseph Elliott, professor of fine arts at Muhlenberg College in photography and Lecturer at Penn. The project was funded by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, well-known for its interest in industrial heritage.
And now that it’s complete, Matero and Hinchman hope the Slate Belt Heritage Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania, as well as the local communities of Lehigh and Northampton counties, will make the web resource their own.
“Why invest in preserving these former industrial landscapes?” Matero asks in an introduction on the site. “As proven elsewhere, this legacy holds the key to revitalization of the region by ‘regeneration through heritage,’ not only in the preservation and possible re-use of these sites, but as catalysts for reviving and maintaining the social and cultural identity and fabric of their surrounding communities and reclamation of the natural environment. This has proven to be a successful approach at other such quarry sites around the world, including none other than the Welsh Slate Belt, now a World Heritage Site. While a few quarries remain open, providing a window onto a once-prolific industry, most of the region’s quarries are closed, fill in, or used as landfill dumps.”
“This is about the convergence of geology, technology, and culture to create a very special place.”
According to Matero, Pennsylvania’s slate industry was as important as its better-known and better-publicized coal, steel and cement industries.
“Begun in the early 19th century first as family quarries, the industry rapidly expanded across Lehigh and Northampton counties with more than 600 quarry operations by the 1930s,” says Matero. “Here, geology was destiny. The industry was expansive in area and complexity.”
So expansive that Matero and Hinchman decided its reporting would work better as a digital resource than as a paper report that would be liable to sit on a shelf gathering dust. It combines information about the geology of the slatelands, 3D models of quarries, photographs of the workers and tools that extracted slate from the ground and fashioned it into everyday articles and building materials, interactive illustrations of the incline cableways and railroads that carried the materials, and pages of history about the economic, social, and cultural impacts of the now nearly defunct industry.
“Although I was originally quite skeptical, John [Hinchman] convinced me that we should do this paperless from the start,” Matero says. “As a digital platform and one that was based on open-source software.”
The idea was to do the heavy lifting to create a resource that would then be turned over to another organization to steward and expand as seen fit.
“It needed to be something that wasn’t ultimately ours,” Hinchman says. “In other words, we should create it. But we should create it for an organization or a group of people that did not have the resources to develop it but still have the resources and wherewithal to expand and promote it.”
Hinchman says he started building out the site using HTML. But after more than half of the work done, he says the team decided that it should be based on a simpler platform, something that another organization could adapt without having to hire an expert coder. Google Sites, the free Web-page creation tool from the search giant, filled the bill.
As far as the content of the site, Matero and Hinchman wanted to make it as exhaustive as possible, gathering as much historical information as they could, while organizing and visualizing it in a way that would reveal the complex network of connections such cultural landscapes generate over time. There was plenty of past information available about the slate industry and its communities, Hinchman says, but you had to dig to find it in rare and obscure resources.
“We said, ‘OK, how many people are truly interested in slate today?’” Hinchman says. “Despite the fact that the state was once the largest producer in the world, it’s not exactly a timely topic. So how do you wind up getting a larger audience? It’s not just about slate, it's about the convergence of geology, technology, and culture to create a very special place. It's about people and their connections to this remarkable natural material and its exploitation.”
“Preserving industrial heritage can be a key component of economic revitalization.”
Matero, for one, is drawn to the “small discoveries” that illuminate how the Pennsylvania quarries became among the biggest producers in the world. In addition to slate’s durability and esthetic appeal, making it a popular choice for high-performance and decorative roofing, it was also common things like school blackboards, he says, which were suddenly in high demand when elementary level education became compulsory in the U.S. Similarly, when electricity became domesticated, slate was also the best material for insulating panels and circuits in every house, factory, and hospital. Also: those partitions in public toilets.
“It’s a story that reveals how a now largely-forgotten material touched many aspects of everyday life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, literally to the end, in slate’s common use for cemetery burial vaults,” Matero says. “And how that spawned an entire industry and landscape, that almost disappeared overnight. That's what I think makes this all so interesting.”
In a more practical sense, preserving industrial heritage can be a key component of economic revitalization in communities that have missed out on a lot of investment since the region’s slate industry faded in the middle of the 20th century. And because the physical legacy of the slate industry is so vast and very permanent on the land, preservation has to occur at the scale of the landscape, Matero says.
“Every generation has taken it upon itself to reinvent what industrial heritage means,” Matero says. “The early preserved sites were heroic. They were picturesque. They made great ruins or popular loft living. But what preservationists have come to realize is that these sites have much to convey when approached as storied places and with a lighter touch. Few landscapes are as indicative of the 20th century as the enormous sites produced by global industries associated with the Cold War, by the aerospace industry, and by the extractive industries that were largely detrimental to the environment. Nevertheless, they hold great promise as incredibly sublime legacy landscapes, and actually may hold the promise for new recreation, interpretation, ecological restoration, and economic redevelopment.”
For more information on Pennsylvania’s Slate Belt heritage, see The Slate Belt website.