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Fledgling museum celebrates the beauty of steel industry

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Western Pennsylvanian who has spent most of his life scrapping old steel mills and other factories now is turning one into a museum dedicated to celebrating their industrial beauty.

New Castle's Chip Barletto, here waving to a passing driver, is transforming part of the former Pennsylvania Engineering Corp. into the Lawrence Museum of Industrial Arts and History. The curator, Darlene Farris, created the colossal sculpture behind him using steel mill parts. It is titled "The Melting of the Matter of Time." (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette photos)

"I always thought this building was so beautiful and magical," says Charles "Chip" Barletto. He's talking about a more-than-century-old red brick landmark in his hometown of New Castle, Lawrence County, the former Pennsylvania Engineering Corp. machining and fabrication shop that sprawls more than 200,000 square feet on 12 acres.

He bought it at a bankruptcy sale in 1994, and his metals processing company, which his father started, is there, as are a couple of other companies. But now he's in the process of turning a relatively small part of it into the Lawrence Museum of Industrial Arts and History.

It could be another year before the museum opens to the public, but Barletto is throwing a preview bash Saturday that is open to anyone who appreciates what he and others are trying to do there:

To preserve and share bits of the brawny businesses that built New Castle, this region and -- to a great extent -- the rest of the country.

 
 

For more information about the museum or the preview party, call 724-658-4571 or visit the Web site at http://www.lawrencemuseum.com.

   
 

"There are kids out there who don't even know a steel mill exists," says the 41-year-old Barletto, who started going into them at age 7 with his father, who had a heavy equipment company that serviced the mills before they started closing and he went into scrap.

Barletto says, "To preserve this stuff is important to me, because I've lived my entire life around it, and I've seen so many beautiful things destroyed."

Even as a child, he risked his old-school Italian father's wrath by saving bits and pieces, starting with locks from the railroad where his immigrant grandfather worked.

By the time he took over the family business, he'd amassed a collection of industrial artifacts as well as art, including a collection of photographs and paintings commissioned by U.S. Steel that once hung in the giant company's headquarters in Pittsburgh's Grant Building.

Among his favorite pieces are a pair of huge round brass gauges that he salvaged from an old boiler that was going to be scrapped. "I literally have gone into garbage cans."

While the focus will be the steel industry and its role in New Castle's glory days, the museum also will pay homage to other industries such as oil and coal. He's even talking to his friend, philanthropic "poor coal miner" A.J. Palumbo, about incorporating an exhibit about him and his family.

The museum will display everything from massive Bessemer converters from a Detroit mill to fragile stock certificates from this factory in the 1880s, when it was owned by a Pittsburgh man named James P. Withrow. Barletto, who had a consultant research the plant's history, even has Withrow's personal safe.

The 1872 factory, which Barletto says is mostly original inside and out, is as much a museum piece as anything. It's now graced out front with a 250-ton scrap metal sculpture by artist Darlene Farris, who is the museum's acting curator.

Such modern, abstract art will be another component of the museum, and, in fact, Farris and others are working on another piece inside that should be ready for Saturday's party.

R.J. Price doesn't consider himself a sculptor, but rather just part of the crew renovating the former Pennsylvania Engineering Corp. into the Lawrence Museum of Industrial Arts and History.

Artists from Pittsburgh and from around the country -- including Salvador's son Jeffrey Dali -- were among the people to get some of the more than 600 invitations Barletto made to look like old stock certificates.

The blast is to feature a couple of bars, several rotisserie pigs and lambs and other food, and fireworks -- indoor and outdoor.

Other fun will range from jazz bands to a glass-blowing demonstration. Perhaps the party's most cutting-edge feature will be a demonstration of forging by master bladesmith Ray Rybar of Finleyville. He was the friend who suggested to Barletto less than a year ago that he ought to transform his collection into a museum.

"I never realized this was all going to come to this now," says Barletto.

But the museum has nonprofit status, and later this fall he hopes to apply for funding to continue developing the place. In the meantime, visits can be arranged by appointment.

The new attraction will be welcomed in New Castle, says JoAnn McBride, executive director of the Lawrence County Tourist Promotion. "Oh my -- we're thrilled about it."

Some people might think Barletto is crazy, but he's used to being called that. "As crazy as everyone thinks I am, this whole thing started by wanting to share my true passion."


Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.

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