When crossing the 40th Street Bridge into Lawrenceville, I've noticed a large green building with an orange sign that says "Heppenstall" on it. What went on there? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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When crossing the 40th Street Bridge into Lawrenceville, I've noticed a large green building with an orange sign that says "Heppenstall" on it. What went on there?

Question submitted by: Scott Greer, Wildwood, Pa.

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"Examine the axle on your locomotive, the shafts that drive the propeller of your ship, and the propellers of your airplane," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette trumpeted in 1936, "and you will find that they are either manufactured by the Heppenstall Company or from its … dies."

Even for those who didn't own their own ships — or lacked the will and SCUBA gear to examine their propellers — life in the 1930s would apparently have been meaningless without Heppenstall. "Your food is delivered in cans sheared by [Heppenstall] knives and coated by Heppenstall tinning rolls," the P-G continued. "Your frying pans, bath fixtures and even the steel sash in your windows are formed in [Heppenstall] dies."

To read such prose is to wonder: Were we truly worthy of Heppenstall? The question is, unfortunately, academic.

Founded in 1889 as Samuel Treathway and Co., the firm started out serving the steel industry by making steel rolls (to flatten out ingots into slabs) and shear knives, to cut the slabs to the desired size. But under the guidance of the Heppenstall family, the company diversified — most notably into razors. According to a 1932 account, a vice president decided that Heppenstall should get into the business "after scraping his face with a dull safety razor blade." This was a public service indeed: Previously, 80 percent of razor blades had come from Sweden, making us vulnerable to the wily Swedes and their unpredictable demands.

Heppenstall even dabbled with radioactive materials: In 1955, Heppenstall workers forged tons of uranium ingots — one of 20 local sites involved in Cold War nuclear work that remained secret until six years ago.

The Heppenstalls also forged a reputation for treating workers well. In 1938, the Bulletin-Index magazine acknowledged that Heppenstall had suffered particularly angry strikes at a time when labor strife "flared up … like hives over Pittsburgh's epidermis." (The Bulletin-Index knew a simile when it saw one, apparently.) But months later, the pro-business magazine noted, the workers were staging company parties with management. The firm "is one of the district's tidiest, paternalistic, family steel companies," the magazine noted.

Back in those days, "paternalistic" was a positive quality — at least within the pages of a pro-business magazine. But by the early 1970s, there was trouble brewing in the corporate family. The winding down of the Vietnam War was hard on the steel industry, as was much other government spending. And the advent of four-blade shaving razors was decades away.

The Lawrenceville facility stayed afloat for a while. The company tore out two inefficient on-site blast furnaces, and retooled to serve the energy industry. And by 1974, Chariman Carl E. Anderson could tell the Post-Gazette, "We think we're going to be here a couple of years from now. A few years ago we weren't too sure of that."

"Obviously the turnaround has occurred," agreed a Pittsburgh Press article of the same year, "and now it's down the stretch."

Well, maybe not so much. The company was later sold, and by 1979, its employees were all laid off and its assets were liquidated. Heppenstall was an early casualty of, and a harbinger for, the malaise that struck Pittsburgh's steel industry.

Management blamed labor costs: In one news story, President Paul H. Daley lamented a near doubling of labor costs — while productivity dropped. Labor, meanwhile, blamed the new anti-union ownership: "There's been a deliberate plot to undermine this plant," one worker told the Pittsburgh Press. The company's parent, he noted, had just shut out another union at one of its coal mines.

Either way, the site has sat more or less idle for a quarter-century now. As early as 1979, plans were announced to convert the site for use by as many as 30 companies. But those plans still have yet to be realized. In the meantime, the facility has housed the occasional cultural event: In 2005 was the location for a theater production by Quantum, a company that specializes in staging plays in nontraditional backgrounds. But mostly, it's been the setting for a corporate drama as written by Samuel Beckett … in which it waits for a developer who never shows, an industry that has yet to return.

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