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Conserving the Heritage of Industrial Communities: The Compromising Issue of Integrity 

12-09-2015 17:35

National Register guidelines for conserving cultural resources assign primary weight to the concept of "integrity," along with that of "significance." The guidelines define integrity as "the ability of a property to convey its significance." In historic preservation, the term addresses the continued tangible presence and condition of the built environment and natural features of properties connected to historical events or persons. National Register Bulletin 15,1 in setting out these guidelines, states: "The evaluation of integrity is sometimes a subjective judgment, but it must always be grounded in an understanding of a property`s physical features and how they relate to its significance" (p. 44).

In recent years, preservationists have increasingly understood that the diverse and dynamic character of American society throughout its history has made the guidelines on integrity inadequate as laid out in Bulletin 15. While integrity rests on the property`s ability "to convey its significance," historical significance depends on historical interpretation, which is by nature changeable over time.2 Significance in landmarking programs once focused narrowly on specific periods, places, political and military events, and traditionally powerful social groups. However, as historians have in recent decades expanded their interpretations of American history to encompass the economic and social complexity of the society, preservation professionals have reconsidered and expanded the concepts of significance and broadened interpretations of the National Register guidelines. Integrity has proven to be a more elusive concept to adapt to the enhanced understanding of our past, because the properties of a more inclusive history seem to be especially vulnerable to the processes of land use change in a capitalistic society. Properties of less-advantaged social groups and those with declining activity due to economic disinvestment, for example, frequently experience land use turnover and serious alteration or even obliteration. Are such properties no longer worth recognition despite their historical significance?

Considerable effort has been expended to address areas of concern with the notion of integrity. The conservation of industrial heritage exemplifies an area where the determination of integrity presents difficult problems. Capital intensive industries were among some of the most important features of emerging twentieth-century America, affecting dramatically both economic capacity and the very essence of American life. However, the enormity of the sites associated with these industries, the large investment in their production works, and the demand to extract value from the unused plants and to recycle the sites rarely afford opportunities to preserve integrity as traditionally defined.

In many locations, where an industry and town were intimately bound together, the industrial complex included not only the production facilities but also the labor organizations and labor-management relations, community institutions, and the managers, workers, business persons and their families who comprised the community. Industrial towns, created and/or controlled by a company, formed an industrial-cultural system. The evaluation of preservation criteria for that system must recognize the whole, that is the inseparable history of the industry and the community.

Earlier efforts to expand the criteria for evaluating integrity have established precedents for understanding the integrity of industrial towns. National Register Bulletin 42 establishes guidelines for mining properties, and Bulletin 38 sets out guidelines for traditional cultural properties. The concept of an industrial-cultural system requires combining the main points of these two sets of guidelines.

In Bulletin 42, Bruce J. Noble, Jr. and Robert Spude consider only the mine production sites, specifically excluding the mining towns and camps.3 Recognizing the almost inevitable deterioration of mining properties, they argue that "the integrity of a mining property can not be judged in the same fashion as the integrity of a building" (p. 19). Although they look only at mine worksites, the authors contribute to the present discussion by applying the idea of "system," in this case a technological system, to the consideration of an industrial property`s integrity. Meaningful evaluation of the integrity of mining properties, according to Noble and Spude, "requires a holistic outlook that comprehensively considers all the component parts of a mining system" (p. 21). Although individual components may appear to lack distinction, the combined impact of separate components may enable the property to convey the collective image of a historically significant mining operation. In essence, the whole of this property will be greater than the sum of its parts. "In such cases, a mining property may be judged to have integrity as a system [emphasis by Noble and Spude] even though individual components of the system have deteriorated over time" (p. 19).4 As we have defined it, the system of an industrial town includes the community and labor relations as well as the plant; therefore, the whole of an industrial-cultural system moves beyond the plant gate to embrace the community`s built environment, its people, and its cultural beliefs, values, practices, and institutions.

Like mining properties, capital intensive industries such as steel and coke making grew, changed and declined, often rapidly, in response to the availability of resources, labor, market demand, and changes in technology. Unlike communities based in agrarian or commercial economies, industrial towns have often been built and run by large corporations which controlled many aspects of life not only in the work place but also in the community. Both historically and at present, decisions about building or tearing down structures in these towns, or moving, scrapping, or upgrading equipment have usually been made and carried out quickly by company management, with little input from the workers or the community at large. During the years just after final plant shutdown, industrial communities--hurt, angry, afraid, and grieving--are unwilling or unable to address the historical significance of their past until the pain has eased some time later. With an immediate concern for economic survival, such communities during this period often allow historic industrial properties to be demolished, which they eventually regret.

Even when industrial communities seek to preserve some of their built environment, especially the industrial facilities and equipment, they often face strong opposition from the current owners, whether those owners are private corporations or public entities. With few exceptions, private owners respond to community goals, if at all, only when the property`s industrial use is completely gone, when plant structures and machinery have been scrapped or sold or are in ruins, or when housing is no longer required for company use. As controllers of a site, public bodies respond to the public`s outcry for immediate economic redevelopment. Public agencies fear a backlash if they advocate preservation, since they know that many people do not see preservation as development and even see it as counterproductive. Even where there is the will to preserve, the way remains difficult. Because of the size and cost, an entire industrial plant can rarely be preserved intact.

Ironically, the most stable and cohesive element in many declining industrial towns is the living community itself. The shared occupational experiences and skills, the ethnic, religious and regional traditions, the values and attitudes, and the network of social relationships, which have evolved over several generations, provide people a sense of continuity and give them the ability to adapt as their industrial town evolves. The living community`s sense of association with the industrial site is expressed in various ways. For example, residents may show strong emotional attachment to such liminal physical spaces as the plant gates or a "hole-in-the-wall" structure (short, foot-tunnel leading into the mill from the town), where pay-stations were often located and where as children they brought lunch pails to their fathers or met them as they came off their "turn." People also affirm their involvement and identification with the industrial site verbally, by reckoning the total amount of (concurrent and consecutive) time their relatives worked there--often adding up to longer than the plant was in operation ("My family had 390 years in that mill").

Consideration of the cultural aspects of integrity for industrial communities finds its precedent in the discussion of traditional cultural properties in Bulletin 38.5 The concept of culture transcends the purely tangible in human life. Indeed, in the wider world, integrity is an intangible human virtue synonymous with uprightness, honor, and fidelity. In the National Register criteria, two of the seven "aspects of integrity"--namely, "feeling" an "association"-- in fact address intangible factors contributing to the integrity of a site. As the Bulletin 15 guidelines are quick to point out, however, "Because feeling and association depend on individual perceptions, their retention alone is never sufficient to support eligibility of a property for the National Register" (p. 45). According to the guidelines, these two aspects in and of themselves do not allow for consideration of all the relevant features (tangible and intangible) of the site in question, and, therefore, they do not lead to a useful evaluation of the site. Nevertheless, National Register Bulletin 38, authored by Patricia L. Parker and Thomas F. King, broadens the discussion of site integrity to include "traditional cultural properties," which must rely much more on the aspects of "feeling" and "association" than the strict guidelines would permit, and which take into account ongoing practices related to the site as well as those of fifty years previous.

Parker and King define a traditional cultural property as one that has "an association with cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that a) are rooted in that community`s history, and b) are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community" (p. 1). Industrial communities represent a particular type of traditional culture characterized by the combination of ethnic and religious beliefs and practices with working class values, a fusion shaped by company control and industrial work place experience.

With regard to assessing the integrity of traditional cultural properties, Parker and King pose two basic questions: "First, does the property have an integral relationship to traditional cultural practices and beliefs; and second, is the condition of the property such that the relevant relationships survive?" (p. 10). Since the physical presence of the plant in an industrial town, work experience in the plant, and labor relations were all inextricably entwined with the evolution of the community, an understanding of the community`s culture can only be made in the context of and with reference to the plant. That is, in the words of Parker and King, "... the property [the industrial plant] can be taken to have an integral relationship with the belief or practice ..." of the community (p. 10).

Earlier, the point was made that an industrial plant will likely suffer considerable disfiguring or demolition. But, Parker and King argue that because "cultural values are dynamic, and can sometimes accommodate a great deal of change, ...a property may retain its traditional cultural significance even though it has been substantially modified" (p. 10). In other words, the notion of cultural significance can transcend the physical remains. Therefore, the crux of their argument for integrity rests with the community. If the property itself, or some specific remaining part of the property, retains significance for the cultural group, in this case the industrial community, then sufficient integrity may exist (p. 10).

In the case of an industrial community, a plant gate, a particular industrial building or equipment stand, or the site of a labor conflict may be enough to inspire the sense of cultural/historical identity and relationship to the whole plant property. In fact, the industrial plant should not be viewed as a sharply bounded, discrete space, but rather as part of a continuum of space with the town. Taverns lining the street adjacent to the plant gates, often referred to as "beer gardens" or "mill bars," remain strongly associated with mill workers` lives, even after plant shutdown. Within the towns are community centers and parks built by and still identified with the company and its founders (e.g., the Carnegie libraries in Homestead, Braddock, and other mill towns). There are ethnic churches with depictions of worker-related subjects in windows and sculpture; and club-halls, churches, and municipal buildings that were part of the history of labor relations. There are racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods that still bear testimony to the divisive cultural policies of the companies.6 And there are cemeteries that guard the remains of strikers, labor organizers, victims of plant accidents, and management personnel.

Parker and King extend their argument to include some property "regardless of how the surroundings of a property may be changed" (p. 10). Sites related to African American history, for example, often are lacking in many of the conventional aspects of physical integrity, because the disposition of those sites has not been under the control of the people to whom they are important. The recent archaeological discovery of a Philadelphia African-American cemetery revealed a site that had been built over for years, which nevertheless retained "considerable cultural significance" not only "for the congregation that traces descent from those interred" but also for the city`s Black community in general ..." (p. 10). Again, the analogy to industrial communities is clear.

In summary, the problem of evaluating the integrity of massive, multifaceted industrial sites and their interrelated communities has far-reaching implications for historic preservation. The rules for determining integrity as a factor in preservation status were developed to deal with sites and properties of agrarian and commercial places in the United States, not with continuously industrial ones. Furthermore, those guidelines take little account of the human dimension in cultural resource conservation--an issue which is of concern in all communities, but of paramount importance in industrial communities. It is virtually impossible to avoid the dilemma of being forced to declare an industrial site to have "compromised" its (physical) integrity because it is still in use as an industrial facility, or to lament that an industrial town has "lost" its integrity precisely because the community has continued to evolve in its industrial context--in other words, because it has maintained its (human) integrity. In a very real sense, the era and process of the deindustrialization of a community and its industrial site(s) are as integral to its industrial heritage as are the eras of buildup or full production in that industry.

With the understanding that an industrial plant often stands as part of a larger industrial-cultural system, we must devise guidelines on how much and what original physical fabric is really needed in order to interpret industrial heritage. We must also recognize that we cannot require that a working industrial community remain static-preserved as a museum and not continue to evolve. As policies and programs are developed to deal with industrial heritage areas on the national level, we must broaden the criteria for determining integrity enough to allow us to interpret meaningfully the circumstances and realities of this country`s two centuries of industrial experience.


  1. "How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation," National Register Bulletin 15. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Interagency Resources Division, rev. 1991.
  2. See Mitchell Schwarzer`s discussion of this issue in "Historic Character and the Representation of Cultural Diversity," Historic Preservation Forum, vol. 7, no. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 1993), pp. 42-49.
  3. "Guidelines for Identifying, Evaluating, and Registering Historic Mining Properties." Washington, D.C. National Register Bullentin 42. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Interagency Resources Division, 1992.
  4. The concept of industrial system can be understood on different scales. It should be recognized that the appropriate system for some industries, such as steel, may not lie within just one plant, but in a cluster of plants spread among several neighboring communities. At its height, the total U.S. Steel mill complex in the lower Monongahela River valley in southwestern Pennsylvania covered more than 25 miles -- five huge, multi-site facilities sprawled across eleven towns.
  5. Patricia L. Parker and Thomas F. King, "Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Interagency Resources Division, 1992.
  6. One way that companies controlled workers` lives was by encouraging intra-ethnic solidarity, and inter-ethnic/interracial rivalry, on the principle of divide and conquer. They manipulated the socio-cultural structure of the plant through ethnic-and race-based hiring/firing practices, job assignments, and selective promotions. In the residential areas of the mine and mill towns, the companies deliberately segregated mill "plans" (numbered neighborhoods) or mine "patches" (small communities living near a mine portal) by race or ethnic background; financially assisted the establishment of "ethnic" or "nationality" churches; sponsored rival sports teams; and made sure that plant managers also held key political posts in town government. Strong ethnic cohesion and cultural identity, coupled with inter-ethnic/inter-racial tension characterize many industrial towns long after their industrial economic base has gone.

Publication Date: July/August 1994


Author(s):Doris J. Dyen & Edward K. Muller

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