Monday, June 27, 2016

Braddock and the River of Steel

Flaring gas at the ArcelorMittal Monesson coke plant.
The regional landscape practically screams the reasons for Pittsburgh’s existence. Its rivers were vital arteries, bringing coal up from Appalachia to feed its vast industries, of which the base was of course steel. The factories needed so much energy that it made sense to locate them close to the coal mines, rather than the iron ore deposits up on the Mesabi Range in Minnesota. Along the rivers - the Monongahela, the Allegheny, and the Ohio - enormous manufacturing works grew up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The scale and integration of industry was stupendous, a tremendous agglomeration. It is nearly all gone now, as steel production and other heavy industry has moved abroad or to more efficient domestic plants. The old Homestead Works, site of one of the most consequential conflicts between management and labor, has been replaced by a giant strip mall. 

I visited in March, during spring break, when my colleague Brendan Moriarty volunteered to put me up with a friend, the retired actor David Conrad (you may remember him as Bradley Cooper’s sleazy friend in Wedding Crashers). Dave lives in Braddock, an old mill town east of Pittsburgh that has been about as hard hit as anywhere in the US due to outsourcing. It does retain the Edgar Thomson Works, US Steel’s last remaining plant in the Pittsburgh area.

The view from Dave's porch.

I drove into Braddock from the south, having spent the last thirty miles or so of my drive in the Mon Valley (short for Monongahela). I-70, which I exited just south of Monesson, crosses the deep, narrow valley via the Belle Vernon Bridge. Looking up at the massive, flaking girders from below, it proved an apt introduction to the place. The valley's steep walls give the floor an isolated feel, which the economy's current status reinforces. On the winding route along the river toward Pittsburgh, I passed Glassport, Clairton, and McKeesport. The names hold clues to the past, but each city is extremely depressed, even those where plants still function. The population and the architecture is aging, much like nearby Appalachia. The signs on restaurants and social clubs suggest that ethnic white identity is still a significant source of pride.

McKeesport lost two US Steel plants in 2014.
Abandoned baseball field upriver.

Coal train across the river from the Clairton coke works.
Braddock Ave.

An original Carnegie library.
Braddock, a few miles and bridge crossings east of Pittsburgh, is an interesting town for several reasons. Its mayor, John Fetterman, has energetically pursued revitalization, winning him several admiring profiles in the national press. I didn’t get to meet him - he was in the closing stages of a doomed campaign for Senate in late March - but I did get a good look at his digs, since Dave’s pad, a converted priory, shares a driveway/courtyard with his residence. Fetterman has embraced public art, attracted a new health clinic, and sought to maintain the town’s once-proud collection of buildings, including one of the first four Carnegie Libraries. Without a reliable economic base, Braddock has a long, long way to go, but it is showing some signs of life, including a new and popular brewery called the Brew Gentleman. 

Downtown Braddock,  Friday night.
My trip began as an effort to explore Pittsburgh itself, and Dave, Brendan, Seth Tinkham (a pal of mine along for the first two days) and I did go for a long, engrossing walk around the downtown on Sunday morning, but the industrial history of the Mon Valley emerged as the trip’s key theme due to our base at Dave’s place in Braddock. On Monday morning, we visited the Carrie Furnaces, which are the last remaining blast furnaces in the area. The others were apparently bought up by Chinese businessmen, for whom it was cheaper to disassemble the existing infrastructure in Pittsburgh and ship it to China than build new works from scratch. 

One of the two remaining Carrie Furnaces
Abandoned gantry.
The Carrie Furnaces once heated iron ore up to 3000 degrees, separating out the impurities that would weaken the metal after casting. Once purified, the molten steel was poured into modified rail tank cars, which would carry it across the river, to the Homestead Works, where it could be cast into ingots that could later be rolled and pressed into their final form. The liquid steel was so hot, however, that if it spilled as it crossed the Monongahela it would melt and destroy the bridge itself. Therefore, engineers devised a specially reinforced span known as a hot metal bridge, a terrifically expensive but vital innovation. The Carrie Furnaces first went into use in 1884. In 1978, they shut down, in the midst of an industry-wide crisis due to foreign competition. For the most part, they have stood derelict since the early eighties, though the site was designated a National Historic Landmark a decade ago. Rivers of Steel, the National Heritage Area, plans to incorporate it into a regional museum on the history of the Mon Valley steel industry. 

Current inhabitants.
Dave arranged for Brendan and me to take an informal tour with the plant’s caretaker, a chatty and helpful fellow whose name I have forgotten. He explained to us how the furnaces worked and let us peer up close at the machinery. As you can imagine, the site was highly contaminated, though many of the most harmful chemicals have been removed. Currently, a flock of goats has the run of the place, munching on grass growing up from tainted soil. The furnaces have been a popular destination for graffiti artists since their abandonment, as well as an artists’ collective that clandestinely constructed a massive stag’s head from scrap metal and tubing in the interior of the plant. It’s forty feet tall, a massive and awesome monument that references the reclamation of the site by wild animals. More recently, as a broader swathe of Americans has developed a nostalgia for the days of heavy industry, it has gained some popularity as a site for offbeat gatherings, including weddings. 

The Carrie deer.
Like most cities that predate the automobile, Pittsburgh’s existence is intimately tied to its physical geography. Its rivers have waned in significance during the era of the postindustrial economy, to which it has adapted better than most of its Rust Belt peers, but the waterways retain a strong influence on local culture and identity. At some point, I hope to examine in a post two exceptional houses in the nearby Laurel Highlands: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob. Their owners grew rich on Pittsburgh - one for its productive capacity, the other for its markets. 

Along the Monongahela, in Pittsburgh.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Roan Mountain

Back in June, I spent about ten days down in the Smoky Mountains. My old friend RD, whom longtime readers of this blog will recognize from many posts but especially the summer of 2014 saga in the Hundred Miles Wilderness, was along again, even joining me for the drive south from Washington, DC. I enjoyed introducing him to the Bible Belt.

Someone has seen a bear, and RD is getting very frustrated.
Unfortunately, our initial plan to do a substantial backpack in the southeastern part of Great Smokies National Park was stymied by bear activity. Rumor had it that one had mauled someone sleeping in a hammock tent. Whatever the truth, many of the campsites we had planned to use were closed. Instead, we decided to do a series of day hikes, with one overnight on Gregory Bald. So we did see a great deal of the park, but we never got too far from the road, which was unfortunate because we shared it with a great many Southerners who were very, very excited about spotting bears from their cars.

Flame Azalea.
Breakfast on Gregory Bald.
As I fumble toward another winter solstice, several memories in particular stick with me: the bright red azalea blooms on top of Gregory Bald (they're actually called Flame Azaleas), roaring streams roofed by enormous rhododendron in full flower, and a sense of the deep human history and isolation that still characterizes a few pockets of these southern Appalachians. RD and I also spent a two very enjoyable nights in Asheville, ending, as all good trips should, with a broad and deep exploration of local beers.

Great trail name. 
Rhododendron, but from the National Park, not Roan Mountain.
By far the most spectacular day, both in terms of weather and terrain, was on Roan Mountain, which was also our first hike of the trip. This long ridge, optimistically described by Wikipedia as a massif, initially caught my attention because a nearby state park hosts a rhododendron festival in late June, precisely when we hoped to visit. In fact, our arrival coincided with its first day. We enjoyed looking at souped-up birdhouses and snacking on onion rings, but there was no trace of the flower the occasion purports to honor. Instead, we drove to see it up on the mountain ridge itself, where an extensive alpine “garden” is accessed via parking lots and concrete wheelchair-accessible paths. The dark pink blossoms of the flowers were lovely, however, and with their twisted, gnarled branches and the heavy fog all around us, they seemed exotic indeed. 

One of the Roan Mountain locals.
Roan Mountain also has the longest stretch of “grassy bald” terrain on the Appalachian Trail, running for about four unbroken miles, with several more miles featuring significant exposures. I hadn’t hiked on this kind of terrain before and so will provide a brief explanation. Trees are absent from various southern summits, but it is inaccurate to refer to these peaks as truly alpine because climatic forces did not create the grassy balds. In fact, it’s not quite clear why they exist. Weather may play a role, but fire, grazing, and human agency are also likely factors. One source I read speculated that wooly mammoths once congregated near these peaks, feeding on their rich pasture.

This fence keeps cattle off of the balds.
In any case, unlike the northern peaks on the AT, the grassy balds have good topsoil, making the hiking easy and pleasant. The views are wonderful, and lovely grasses and shrubs line the path. I didn’t have a guide to the local flora and fauna, but it would be a marvelous place for some amateur botanizing. 

Very verdant.
Our day actually began at the Mountain Harbor Hostel, a welcoming spot where, for a modest fee, we could pitch our tent and have access to the bathrooms in the morning. Catering mostly to hikers, including a great many folks who are on the AT for long haul, the place is surprisingly well-known for its breakfast, which was indeed enormous and of excellent quality. No oatmeal for us that morning. We also caught a shuttle ride to our trailhead, up at Carver’s Pass, near the rhododendron garden we had visited the previous day. Encounters with paved roads are depressingly frequent in the southern Appalachians, at least along the AT, but they can be convenient.

Might as well be Scotland.
The trail began quite near the top of one of the balds, from which we proceeded southwest over Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald, gradually working our way back to the hostel. People along the trail were friendly. We spoke to a mountain steward about some of the local plants, a dad and his daughter out for a hike with his new girlfriend, and a former thru-hiker who vividly remembered New Hampshire granite. We also came across a group of SCA volunteers mowing blackberry bushes. If succession goes too far, trees will replace these bushes and the balds will be lost. In fact, the bucolic nature of the landscape was one the region's great charms, though development, in the form of ridgeline trophy houses, is having a distressing impact on the views and presumably wildlife habitat. The ridge is outside the Great Smokies National Park, lying several dozen miles to the northeast in the midst of Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests. This situation reduces the amount of tourist traffic but also weakens legal protections against development of various kinds.

Hard work...

...with a long ways to go.
We covered the 15 or so miles a lot faster than I expected, especially for the first day of the trip (subsequent ascents, especially Gregory Bald, were considerably more challenging for yours truly). In any event, we picked up the car early enough so that we could explore some back roads on the drive to Asheville, where we pitched our tent at the French Bend campground. In the morning, we moved onto the National Park. I don't know that I need to return to the park again (I also visited during spring break of sophomore year in college, which was a memorably damp affair), but Roan Mountain is certainly one of the most distinctive and beautiful ridges I've ever hiked on. 

Not a bad day.

Friday, August 7, 2015

William West Durant and his Adirondack Camps

The main lodge at Camp Pine Knot.
William West Durant was no choir boy. Despite being born into great wealth and receiving a fine education in England and Germany, he cheated his sister out of her share of the family fortune. She sued him, but by the time she won, he was so far in debt that nothing remained for her. Married to the daughter of old family friends, he philandered shamelessly until he and his wife divorced (he remarried, more happily, later on). His personal charm and family connections gained him the favor of several wealthy patrons. He relied on these men, some of whom remain household names today, to bail him out of debt many times over.

William West Durant in 1884.
And yet, Durant’s legacy as the supervisor of a new style of architecture still reverberates, at least in the north woods. His father, Dr. Thomas Durant, a key player in the Credit Mobilier scandal that deeply tainted the Grant Administration, was one of the builders of the Transcontinental Railroad. The elder Durant had purchased land in the Adirondacks to aid the construction of a rail line from Saratoga to the St. Lawrence River, but when the Panic of 1873 ruined the project’s financing, he was left with hundreds of thousands of acres. He put his son in charge of developing tourism for the area, presumably to raise the value of land so that it could be sold off. Over the next fifteen years, the younger Durant developed a rustic architecture that uniquely mediates between the city and the wilderness.

Long Lake, only a short seaplane ride from Camp Pine Knot.
In early July, I attended a week-long NEH workshop that allowed me to observe Durant’s designs close at hand, as well as consider the meaning and consequences of such architecture. We bunked at Camp Huntington, known as Camp Pine Knot until Collis Huntington, another railroad financier and a longtime Durant patron, bought the place in 1890, in part to relieve a portion of Durant’s debts. Each of the three camps that we examined – Camp Pine Knot, Camp Sagamore, and Camp Uncas – bear striking similarities, but it is possible to discern an evolution in Durant’s ideas about what constitutes a pleasant woodland retreat.

The era in which Durant built was one of rapid change, economic and social. Industrialism had created great fortunes for the Gilded Age elite, while cities grew crowded, noisy, and dirty. They were particularly objectionable in the summer; imagine the stench of horse manure rotting profusely in the streets. Moreover, attitudes about masculinity had shifted from favoring Victorian restraint to stress more aggressive character development, especially through outdoor recreation. Teddy Roosevelt’s exhortations on behalf of “the strenuous life” embody this new approach. Remarkably, concerns about deforestation, erosion, and violent flood and drought cycles, as well as a growing appreciation for the value of wilderness, convinced the New York State legislature to preserve the Adirondack region as “forever wild” in its revisions to the state constitution in 1885. Formerly inaccessible due to their rugged and remote terrain, the Adirondacks could now be reached in a day via railway, steamboat, and stagecoach from New York – and they beckoned to those with the money, drive, and leisure to reach them.

Thus Durant built in an era both dynamic and anxious, and his edifices reveal a great deal about how he and his patrons felt about these substantial societal challenges.

Sagamore Lake.
First of all, Durant intended his camps to be fun and restful refuges. Pine Knot is on Raquette Lake, a large, still lightly developed lake that must have been nearly pristine in Durant’s time. Uncas and Sagamore are built on their own ponds, entirely subsumed within the larger Durant properties. They remain the sole developments on the lakes, totally secluded. Much of the Sagamore property was subsequently given to New York State in the mid-twentieth century (after a stint of ownership by Syracuse University), but the constitution’s forever wild clause ensures that the view will remain pristine.

A bed at Camp Pine Knot.
Save for the chimneys, foundations, and various iron fittings, the structures are all made of wood, often embellished with birch bark and furniture fashioned from unmilled branches. The effect is rustic and elegant. Early on, Durant’s builders worked with whole logs, but eventually, they began to add log siding with milled lumber so that walls could be more efficiently built while retaining their rough character. Some structures, especially communal spaces for dining and entertainment, feature extensive glass windows, which had to be painstakingly carried by hand for the better part of a day from the nearest railroad depot. Foreshadowing a favorite strategy of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, Durant made sleeping quarters small, encouraging people to gather in larger spaces. They also needed to go outside to reach larger dining or recreational buildings. Consequently, the camps feel more like a village than a country manor in the style of the Biltmore Estate or mansions at Newport. The overall effect is one of close contact and interaction with nature.

The original dining room at Camp Pine Knot. Note how close the lake is.
From the outside.
Durant included this breezeway at Camp Pine Knot, but he generally avoided using them because they allowed fires to spread between buildings.
In contrast to architects who designed more opulent Gilded Age resorts, Durant took great pains to nestle his buildings within the larger forest environment. Neither Pine Knot nor Uncas has unrestricted views of the water; instead, they are mostly hidden in the woods, painted in dark browns and greens to blend in (Sagamore is a different story, and I’ll get to that). Durant may have operated under a different set of ethics than his peers in New York City in this rustic setting – or maybe he wanted the understated layout to make it appear that he and his patrons eschewed ostentatious displays of wealth, much as a tech mogul today might enjoy being photographed in a t-shirt and jeans.

Bowling alley exterior.
The lanes.
One of the smaller fireplaces at Sagamore.
It goes without saying that these camps could not have operated without a small army of servants – at least three times as numerous as the people they served. Since the camps were so remote, they essentially functioned as self-sufficient farms, with vegetable gardens, dairy animals, forges, and carpentry shops on site, and they required year-round caretakers, in addition to the seasonal staff. Durant carefully placed the living quarters for servants away from the main buildings, an easy distance by foot but far enough to delineate social boundaries and ensure privacy. Interestingly, the drive to both Sagamore and Uncas goes right past all these auxiliary structures – a convenient arrangement for getting horses into their stables, to be sure, but also a surefire way to highlight the size of the domestic infrastructure, as well. Thus the layout and architecture of the later camps mixes restraint with reminders of affluence, signaling refined taste and education within a larger context of wealth.

Servants' quarters at Camp Sagamore.
Sagamore, by far the grandest of the three camps, also includes a sort of recreation hall and a bowling alley, as well as a private retreat for male guests nestled on the edge of the woods. These features were added by Alfred Vanderbilt after he bought the camp from Durant in 1901 (JP Morgan purchased Uncas in 1896, as well. Durant simply could not help overspending wildly on his projects). Like many of Durant's original touches, they seem to have been designed with an eye toward male bonding and entertainment. At Camp Pine Knot, where Durant lived for several years, he gave his wife a houseboat via which she and her friends could escape the bugs. Apparently he took advantage of her absence by cycling off to visit his mistress at an adjoining property.

The chalet at Camp Pine Knot.
Another of Sagamore’s most notable features is its Swiss-inspired main lodge, designed to resemble a chalet. In fact, Durant and his architectural collaborators – the exact process by which Durant translated his general ideas about landscape and building design into reality is obscure – had already experimented with a much smaller version at Camp Pine Knot. After constructing Camp Uncas, which is relatively stylistically understated, Durant returned to the Swiss theme on a much larger scale. We were only able to tour the lodge’s main room, notable for its fireplace and tree-trunk ceiling beams. Outside, bright red paint applied as trim to the window frames contrasts strikingly with the dark brown of the wooden siding. The overall effect is impressive; the camp is the grandest of Durant’s designs and lacks the more modest, richly sylvan character that distinguishes Pink Knot and Uncas. It looks and feels more like a hotel than a camp for a rich family.

The main lodge at Sagamore. 
Sleeping cottages adjacent to the main lodge.
Many of my colleagues on the workshop were impressed by the illusion of wilderness that Durant created. At both Uncas and Sagamore, Durant even included lean-tos where people could go to snooze or enjoy a campfire (amusingly, they look exactly like the gritty specimens one sees at steady intervals along the Appalachian Trail). My own feeling is that Durant, Vanderbilt, and their buddies were well-aware of the artifice, and while they liked the proximity to the outdoors, they were fully conscious that they also appreciated luxury. It’s nice to enjoy fresh trout and the smell of pine needles without having to dig a hole to take a crap or actually cook the fish yourself. Whatever Teddy Roosevelt might have thought, for them, the intermediacy of the experience was exactly the point.

A lean-to at Camp Uncas, evidently still in use.
During our visits to these sites, and especially as we got underway on our analytical group projects, it was interesting for my program colleagues and me to negotiate our unease with the class and gender implications of the origins of these camps (as well as the Adirondack State Park itself, its founding deeply resented by locals and a continuing source of regional conflict) with our very real enjoyment of Camp Huntington. For our group, at least, Durant’s design worked as intended – we mingled in common spaces, wandered the woods and paddled the waters, and left in an excellent frame of mind. We enjoyed our hot showers and internet service, clean drinking water, and regular meals, even using Chinese-made, globally-sourced iPads to produce videos for our group presentations at the end of the week. The artifice of wilderness endures. In other words, even for a group of people who outspokenly profess to be progressive and highly invested in societal equality, it is hard to resist having it both ways, at least for a week. Ironically, two of these camps (Durant was involved in building several others that we did not visit) now serve educational and non-profit uses. I have not yet made up my mind if this twist, along with the general spread of tourism to the ‘Dacks, represents the democratization of the wilderness experience or fealty on the part of the middle class to lifestyles copied from the elite. Probably it is something of both.

The main lodge at Camp Uncas - yours for $2.95 million.