There are ironies galore in the Pittsburgh Corning story. Right now there is considerable angst because of the latest visible, physical loss to the community. Plant 5 came crashing down in a matter of days.
“Well, I guess it was to be expected,” said one observer.
Another commented that removal of the structure would allow the company to get its property taxes removed.
“That probably means that no one is going to buy the plant or use it for manufacturing something, like we heard was going to happen,” said another person, a former employee.
“What do you think caused it? The competition from overseas?” someone else asked.
“People weren’t buying enough blocks anyway,” the former employee said, “But anytime there was a suggestion that the company could make something else, the big shots would not listen. A big manufacturing plant can be retooled and make something else. Ball did that.”
That is a thought I have heard many times. There were some mentions by company spokespersons of something like that. Unused space could be put to work and so could some of the laid-off workers if PC pursued the market for collectibles, promotional specialties, memorabilia, decorative items.
I know people have made some money from customizing glass blocks, laser etching them, applying colored coatings in attractive designs. I bought some of those from third parties, who could make the block-based products in small workshops and with minimal investment in equipment and materials. Wouldn’t you think the corporation could do that?
“I wonder if they thought of making plastic blocks and glass blocks, so they could sell whichever kind the customer wanted,” someone put in; but others dissed this idea heartily. Plastic blocks! Acrylic or polycarbonate blocks sound positively sacrilegious here.
This reminded me of when a hapless architect, Hal Hart by name, was making a presentation concerning the then proposed renovation of the junior-senior high school, in a public meeting, using concept sketches, and he pointed to the vast arrays of glass blocks on every side of the existing structure, all of which would be removed and the windows reshaped and repositioned.
Hart assured school officials and public that he intended to retain the basic look and feel of the original design by prominent architect and local celeb, the late R.V. Hall. But he was considering using polycarbonate blocks. They would look okay; they would be much lighter. They would not require as much support. They would cost less.
Hoo boy! That idea went over with a crash like the sound of a huge wall of blocks toppling. In a week’s time there was a petition with umpty signatures on it, of people who were telling the school board not to put knock-off, plastic blocks into the school.
No, certainly not, the board assured one and all. They would not have given that idea serious consideration, not a bit of it. Hal Hart had not realized to what extent the community was involved with glass blocks. Now that he grasped that, he would make sure the renovated building had glass blocks in all the appropriate places.
Sure enough, when the renovation of the elementary school was being planned a few years later, and the same architect was talking to the board and the public about what was being proposed, someone asked about use of glass blocks. Those would still be featured, wouldn’t they?
Oh yes, he assured them, adding a wry comment to the effect that he had got the message last time around. No plastic blocks in Port Allegany.
I was remembering another architect, R.V. Hall himself, when he was well into designing that elementary school, something like 30 years ago. Those of us who recognize his “Hall mark” in any building he designed know his must-have materials were glass block, concrete and indigenous stone.
The morning then PC president, the late John Baldwin came here for a press conference and told a stunned community, including this incredulous reporter, that PC would probably close Plant 1 shortly, unless a buyer or tenant could be found to carry on production there, was followed by an afternoon of horrified reaction in the community, and a school board meeting at which Hall would go over the latest work on the design of the new school.
It happened that the meeting was held in the L.L. Smith School in Roulette. As Hall was walking toward that building (one of his) with a roll of drawings under his arm, I accosted him to get a quote.
“What is your reaction to the news that PC may cease glass block production?”
He stopped and stood, looking ashen. “I don’t know what I will do if we can’t get blocks. I don’t think I can design without blocks,” he said. Then, shaking his head, he went on into the school.
He would have been appalled at the whole, sad, and unnecessary decline of the local presence of PC. As my father would have. As many of us are.
It wasn’t PC marketing and promotional cleverness, or planning and adaptation creativity and agility that turned it around before, and led to the major upgrade and the great relighting celebration. Contractors came up with the idea of pre-fabbing major glass block units and saving on-site labor costs.
But that was before the asbestos class action suits. The company has been in Chapter 11 since 2000! Asbestos-related health and death claims were and are the main factor in putting it there.