Old buildings are more than stacks of brick and creaky wood floors.
In a constantly changing world, old buildings offer an experience of being a part of a continuum, providing us with a sense of belonging and recollection of who we are and where we’ve come from. For the community of Archbald, the energy and power of old buildings emanate from the Gravity Slope Colliery, a group of coal mining structures located on Laurel Street, initially opened in 1913.
For over a decade, Archbald Borough officials and dedicated members of the community have been advocates for the adaptive reuse of the buildings and the reanimation of the site into the Gravity Slope Colliery Recreation Park Project. Adaptive reuse is a collective process requiring a diverse group of people dedicated to the preservation and rehabilitation of their built environment. Since 2005, the nonprofit organization the Gravity Slope Committee has been working to save the three remaining buildings known as the Oil House, the Fan House and the Shifting Shanty.
With the help of Leadership Lackawanna and the Restore the Slope project in 2012, efforts focused on the restoration of the Oil House, which included roof repair and replacement, door and window replacements, brickwork/masonry repairs, graffiti removal, entry stair construction, landscaping and exterior site cleanup. Beginning in the fall of 2021, senior interior architecture students from Marywood University’s School of Architecture partnered with the committee to develop ideas for a three-phase development project consisting of conceptual planning, applying for grant programs and construction. Marywood’s undergraduate and graduate interior architecture programs focus on adaptive reuse as a tool for community development.
For the first phase, Marywood students attended regular Gravity Slope Committee meetings to listen to the values and needs of the community and translate those ideas into design proposals for the Oil House building. For the students, this was a significant opportunity to engage with an impassioned group of individuals who graciously welcomed their ideas and allowed them to experience first-hand the power of thinking small in a big way.
Adaptive reuse doesn’t need to be flashy. For the Gravity Slope, the most significant impact comes through a community-based design approach that celebrates the presence of the people who have inhabited the place across time. Although in varying degrees of decay, buildings like these represent the richness of history formed on the backs of hardworking laborers and titans of industry. While only ghostly traces remain, the site once anchored the city, serving as a beacon of coal production for over 40 years until its permanent closure in October 1955. Design ideas explored new gathering spaces for the locals and visitors to the Lackawanna Heritage Trail while working to establish connections between Archbald’s coal mining past and the pride of the place felt by its current residents.
With the added participation of the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority, the Marywood student’s final concept plan formed the basis for a grant application authored by Borough Manager Rob Turlip. It will serve as a guide for the development stage.
In September, the PA Commonwealth Finance Authority awarded the Gravity Slope Recreation Park Project $235,000 towards the project’s development, including updates to the Oil House for a new tenant outfit, restrooms, deck spaces for local gathering, site cleanup and landscaping.
Moving forward, the project will enter the bidding phase around January 2023, with potential bid awarding in February for the elements included under the grant.
In the spring of 2023, a new group of Marywood’s senior interior architecture students will join the Gravity Slope Committee in conceptualizing another project phase for the remaining two buildings. Overall, the steadfast efforts between the Borough of Archbald, the Gravity Slope Committee, Marywood students and the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority represent how a community’s dedication to its heritage resources can bring about the importance of adaptive reuse and cultural memory to the identity of a city.
Joshua Berman is an instructor at Marywood University School of Architecture and the associate director of graduate studies. To learn more about the Gravity Slope Colliery Recreation Park Project, visit www.facebook.com/gravityslopecolliery.