Artists from New York and Pittsburgh will display their work in the museum.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Charles Barletto spent a good part of his youth tooling around steel mills and picking up artifacts.
Now the New Castle man, known as Chip, is taking his love of the region's industrial past to create a museum dedicated to steelmaking and other heavy industry.
The Lawrence Museum of Industrial Arts and History will open Saturday for an invitation-only party in the converted steel mill on South Jefferson Street. The facility likely will not be open to the general public for a year, but Barletto intends to give personal tours to those interested.
He plans to display many of the rare finds he has collected over the years, as well as modern and traditional artwork that celebrates industry. Artists from New York City and western Pennsylvania are creating pieces inside the building this week using equipment and scrap from the facility.
New York City artist Darlene Farris created a 250-ton metal scrap sculpture at the entrance called "The Melting of the Matter of Time."
She met Barletto when looking for scrap metal to use in a piece of artwork, and Barletto eventually asked her to build his own sculpture, which greets those as they enter the facility.
After the sculpture, Barletto decided it was time to pursue his dream of a museum.
Ray Rybar, a renowned blacksmith from Finleyville, Pa., who creates artifacts based on Bible descriptions, first suggested a museum to Barletto. But it was a trip to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington that cemented the idea.
"I wasn't impressed [by the Smithsonian collection of industrial art and equipment] because I had more stuff," Barletto said.
Barletto, a third-generation American descended from boilermakers, looked at the steelmaking industry from a different perspective, even as a youngster.
"When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to play. I had to go to work with my dad or find a new place to live," he said. "I didn't like the work I had to do and I would start looking around and collecting things."
He likens his fascination with industrial artifacts to his love of dinosaurs.
"Steel mills were so big, I can only imagine it's like seeing a dinosaur. They've been destroying the steel mills just like the dinosaurs," he said.
It's Barletto's unique perspective that has attracted other artists to him.
Vince Ornato of Pittsburgh met Barletto in June and has agreed to display his oil paintings based on the steel industry in the museum.
"My mind-set was similar to his. He sees the industry in a positive light," said Ornato, who was an ironworker for seven years before becoming a full-time professional artist.
"I think there is a need to talk about labor in a positive light because all people ever talk about is pollution, but it was the steel mills that helped build this country," Ornato added.
Barletto bought 526 S. Jefferson St. in 1994 to house his scrap metal business, Industrial Concerns Inc., but the building turned out to be a rare find. He is now waiting for state and federal approval to have the 1862 building designated a historical landmark.
Signs of neglect
The years have left the cavernous structure with broken windows and missing doorways, but historian Ron Carlisle of Pittsburgh and the architectural firm of Arthur Lubetz Associates advised Barletto to leave the building intact -- broken windows and all -- for the opening Saturday to give patrons its flavor.
Saturday's swanky affair will have a 16-piece jazz band, a New York City disc jockey, indoor and outdoor fireworks and a glass-blowing demonstration, and Rybar will be working on a rare machine, an 1862 Hotchkiss power hammer owned by Barletto.
"This is one of the rarest machines on the planet. This is the only one I've ever seen," said Rybar on Thursday as he checked it out.
Rybar will use the rare machine to make Roman spikes -- most significantly known for nailing Christ to the cross -- and handing them out to guests at the opening.
Inside the aging facility will be the artwork, artifacts Barletto has collected and things donated by others. Every day more comes in, he said.
On Thursday, he was expected to travel to Weirton Steel to pick up artifacts that company has collected for its own defunct museum of photographs and art made by steel workers.
He believes there are others like himself who will be attracted to the history and art of heavy industry.
"This is a dream come true," he said.