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Leaving space to note dual history

| Sunday, March 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Developer Steve Kubrick hopes to reserve space inside the former Alcoa Research Laboratories for a small museum recognizing the joined history of New Kensington and Alcoa.

“Alcoa is what built the Alle-Kiski Valley,” Kubrick said.

The Pittsburgh Reduction Co., the predecessor of Alcoa, opened its first manufacturing plant in New Kensington in 1891, the same year the city was founded. More Alcoa facilities would spring up in New Kensington and neighboring Arnold.

The city's fortunes were tied to the company's for a century. They suffered together through the Depression, prospered together when production boomed during World Wars I and II.

Kubrick said it was rumored that rooftop munitions guarded the research labs during wartime. He has more mundane plans for the roofs — perhaps gardens or other “green” treatments.

The jobs at Alcoa and other industries prompted the growth of housing. Alcoa had a direct impact on the neighborhoods around the research labs and the Aluminum City Terrace housing plan off Route 780 — a federal housing project in the 1940s for workers in defense-related industries.

As many as 3,000 to 5,000 people worked at local Alcoa plants during boom times.

But by the 1970s, production had been moved elsewhere and the local plants were shuttered.

Kubrick believes as many as 800 employees worked at the Alcoa Research Labs in New Kensington at one time. After the Alcoa Technical Center opened in the early 1960s, research jobs slowly were shifted to the new Upper Burrell campus over the next three decades.

Lower Burrell Mayor Don Kinosz, who worked at Alcoa for nearly 40 years until the late 1990s, said he was part of the large wave of employees who moved from the New Kensington labs to the research center in the very early 1980s.

Charles “Skip” Culleiton, a Tarentum native now living in Lower Burrell, believes a small number of people worked at the New Kensington labs at least until 1997, but the buildings were largely vacant by then.

Culleiton said he bounced back and forth between the two locations during his nearly 40 years as a chemist with Alcoa before retiring in the early 1990s.

He recalls working in the analytical chemistry lab on the top floor of Building 29, the same lab that employed his father. Culleiton had an uncle who worked in the basement machine shop.

Although the Upper Burrell facilities were newer, Culleiton said the New Kensington labs had a more communal atmosphere he appreciated.

“It was a very beautiful building,” Culleiton said of Building 29.

“The grandeur of that building was something else,” said Kinosz, who managed the chemistry and smelting divisions.

The building was a showplace for the many uses of aluminum, from architectural design elements to furniture, light fixtures and even paint.

The Allegheny-Kiski Valley Heritage Museum in Tarentum, of which Culleiton is a board member, has a room displaying the many products Alcoa made over the years.

Kubrick hopes to do something similar in the redeveloped research labs to give the public access to the well-known building — which many local residents recognize but have never been inside.

“We know what Alcoa meant to New Kensington,” Mayor Tom Guzzo said.

— Liz Hayes

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