Iron and Steel Museum has technology, art and history
● By Stone Lieberman
By NATALIE SMITH
Not many folks can trace their lineage to someone who’s left an indelible mark on Chester County, let alone an entire industry.
But Scott Huston’s great-great-great grandmother, Rebecca Lukens, has been called the nation’s “first female industrialist,” and the iron and steel business she nurtured in the 1800s ultimately stretched into the next century and beyond.
“She couldn’t vote, she had limited rights … people try and label her a lot of different things, but I think she was just strong,” Huston said of his ancestor, who lived from 1794 to 1854.
An educated Quaker, Rebecca Lukens went from being a pregnant widow running a small steel mill to a savvy businesswoman who oversaw numerous enterprises. But steel, and the boilerplates made from it, is what welded the Lukens name into the lifeblood of area, leading to more than two centuries of contributing to the construction of ships of all makes.
As president of the National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum in Coatesville, Huston wants to preserve and share not only his family history, but that of Lukens Steel, which has been continuously operating in some fashion for more than 200 years.
The museum, a venture of the Graystone Museum and Historical Society of Coatesville, includes homes that were residences of Lukens family members, historical emergency vehicles, items manufactured by Lukens and steelmaking exhibits in the Lukens Executive Office building. The area is designated the Lukens National Historic District.
Terracina is among the buildings owned by the Graystone Society on the museum tour. The home of Rebecca Lukens’ daughter, Isabella, it was built in 1850 and is furnished as a house from that period. “It’s a beautiful home,” said James Ziegler, executive director of the museum.
Across South First Avenue from Terracina is majestic Graystone Mansion, which had been the family home of A.F. Huston, who was Isabella’s son, Rebecca’s grandson and one of the presidents of Lukens Steel.
A.F. Huston had the home built in 1889, and his family lived there until the 1930s. Philadelphia architects Walter Cope and John Stewardson designed it in the Collegiate Gothic style, which can be seen at colleges and universities, “including Bryn Mawr,” Ziegler said. “They named it after the color of the building.” The mansion was sold to the city in 1938, and was used as Coatesville’s city hall until 1992. The building now belongs to the Graystone Society.
In addition to tours, the mansion’s inherent elegance, curved driveway and wood-paneled rooms have made it a popular rental location for weddings and other special events.
In the process of renovation, and not yet open to the public, is a very significant structure: Brandywine Mansion, the actual home of Rebecca Lukens. “She occupied it from 1816 until her passing in 1854,” the executive director said.
All three of the homes are close to one another, and close to the steel plant. In 1994, the U.S. Park Service named the homes and executive building a National Historic Landmark.
Funds to help acquisitions and renovations over the years have come from, among others, The Lukens Foundation, The Stewart Huston Charitable Trust and The Huston Foundation. In June, state Sen. Andy Dinniman also helped to obtain some state funding for the museum.
Also among the museum’s collections are works by artist Klaus Grutzka, an industrial artist who was born in Germany. Grutzka’s subjects reflect the industrial age, and many of them are related to the steel industry. Grutzka died in 2011 and the museum took ownership of several thousand artworks the next year.
“We have photographed 1,700 to date,” said Ziegler, “representing perhaps half of the collection. Several paintings are on display throughout the museum.”
The Grutzka Studio is on the second floor of the Lukens Executive Office Building.
But recent larger acquisitions have expanded the museum’s footprint, and its ability to tell the fuller Lukens story.
In October 2016, current plant company owner, Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal, donated two buildings to the museum: The former 120-inch rolling mill and the motorhouse. Including a side yard, the donated area covers about four acres. The buildings were originally constructed during World War II and the rolling mill was operational until 1982.
Museum president Huston said when the transformation is complete, the mill building will be used for larger and more detailed displays, particularly ones that highlight steel’s connection to the world of space and science.
Ziegler said the Lukens products were used in the propulsion systems of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. While currently this is featured in a small-scale presentation, “In the museum, we could have a more permanent display,” Ziegler said.
The larger building will have a “micro-climate environment,” Huston said, “where we would put models and displays. It has a concrete floor, brick walls. It can be heated or cooled.”
Huston is eager to show how the history of steel is relevant to today’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) educational emphasis.
“Iron and steel. How do you make iron and steel? It’s with chemistry, it’s with engineering, it’s with math. And it's big, cool stuff. Rocket engines and all kinds of fun things. If we can get people interested in that, we think we really have something. We need dedicated space for some of those concepts.”
The plant’s steel has been used in many ways, including the hulls of America’s Cup racing boats, the Freedom Tower in Manhattan, the Tappan Zee Bridge (over the Hudson River in New York) and U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers.
ArcelorMittal currently employs about 700 at the Coatesville plant.
During the Civil War, Rebecca's mill, reflecting her Quaker legacy, did not produce iron for artillery purposes. It did, however, produce iron during the Civil War. But not for the Monitor, one of the iron-clad warships.
“Every steel mill in this area will tell you they put steel in the Monitor,” Huston said with a laugh. “Lukens did for a Monitor-class boat, like riverboats and gun boats. Rebecca had this strategic outlook. It was a local company, but it had a nationwide market. She had selling agents in Boston, New York, Cincinnati, New Orleans – which was closed in the Civil War, but reopened again. She had multiple selling agents. She really had people out there networking for her.”
A distinctive feature planned for the mill building will be a display of pieces the plant created for the World Trade Center which were left standing after its destruction, the seven sister columns that made up the northeast corner of the North Tower.
“When you cut them, you’ve got the trident and the base and what we call support columns,” Huston said. Fourteen pieces will be re-erected outside the new museum building. Currently, one of the 50-ton tridents is on display as part of a Steelworkers’ Memorial, which pays tribute to steel workers and first responders who lost their lives in Coatesville steel making.
Huston also sees importance in telling the stories of the steelworkers. “We're really excited about the mill because that's where the steel story is told and the steelworker story is told. Someone brings their grandkids back here and they want to show them where they worked. It wasn't in any of these [Lukens and Huston family] houses. That's what’s really key.
“We're happy about what we've done and where we're going and who we're doing it for. Our family history is pretty well preserved and protected. The people who got us there, we need to tell their story.”
But Huston also sees the tight connection between the steelworkers and the Lukens family themselves.
“The family's right here. We're in this together,” he said. “They talk about this as a family company -- a word that was thrown around a lot was ‘Lukenite,’ if you're in the family of steelworkers. And it really was a family company beyond that.”
While the completion of the converted buildings is in the future, Huston has high hopes for the impression this part of the National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum leaves on a visitor.
“I want them to take away a lot. I think the main thing is that people have made and still make great things,” he said. “I want them to connect people with individual stories. You can see a big steel building, but getting people inside and getting the sense that people make this stuff and they're very proud of it. We're proud of it.”
Information about the National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum is available at www.steelmuseum.org or by calling 610-384-9282.
On Sept. 11, the museum will again host “Coatesville Remembers 9/11,” a commemorative event recalling the 16th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. The reflective gathering will be among the steel tridents on display. Also featured will be various works of World Trade Center art, videos, student projects and other pieces in the Lukens Executive Office building.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com