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Brownsville's Flatiron museum preserves industrial glory days

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
The architectural design of Brownsville’s Flatiron Building Heritage Museum and Visitors Center was tagged “flatiron” after a similar structure with flat back and rounded front corner was built in New York in 1904. At a recent statewide conference, one panel discussed using historic preservation and “heritage tourism” to promote new economic life in Brownsville.
Brownsville's Flatiron Building Heritage Museum and Visitors Center features many items for sale that display the heritage of the area. Submitted
Brownsville's Flatiron Building Heritage Museum and Visitors Center features hundreds of artifacts from the community's rich history. Submitted
Here is one of the many displays at the Flatiron Building Heritage Museum and Visitors Center in Brownsville. Submitted

The historic Flatiron Building in the Brownsville's downtown commercial district offers a three-sided peek of the Fayette County town that played a crucial role in the region's industrial boom.

Built in 1835, the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp.'s Flatiron Building Heritage Museum and Visitors Center preserves the history of the region's industrial heyday and promotes heritage tourism in the area. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Located at 69 Market St., the three and a half-story brick building with a rounded, tapered front houses the corporation's offices, the Heritage Museum and Center, the Frank L. Melega Art Museum and one apartment.

The two museums include original paintings, traditional music and crafts and hundreds of artifacts from the community's rich history.

“We get a lot of former residents who come and sort of want to celebrate Brownsville's history, and we have people stopping by who are interested in things around town as far as redevelopment,” said Jamie Brackman, a team member of Office of Surface Mining/VISTA, whose office is in the building. “With the art museum, it is a somewhat different crowd, with a lot of younger visitors.”

“Many people just come in to learn interesting stories about the town and the region as a whole,” Brackman said.

Norma Ryan, a charter member and treasurer of the revitalization group, said 6,000 to 8,000 visitors walk through the building each year.

“We have several events at the art museum that really do bring in a lot of people of that interest and a community week in August that brings in a lot of locals,” Ryan said. “We call it the Heritage and Visitors Center, because we encourage people to go to sites not only in our community, but as part of the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. We have brochures here of many other interesting locations.”

According to historical accounts, the architectural design of the building that resembles an old-fashioned clothes iron was tagged “flatiron” after a similar structure with flat back and rounded front corner was built in New York in 1904.

The original soft-brick Flatiron Building underwent several extensions through 1930, when the last addition to the “blocks of buildings” was in place.

The heritage center occupies the front part of the building and gives visitors a look at the town's history from different perspectives. Windows facing north and west offer a glimpse of the railroad history, including the former Union Station, while windows facing south and east provide a scenic view of the Monongahela River, where steamboats were launched and coal and coke were produced.

A large window in the museum looks out to the National Road (U.S. Route 40/Market Street) and the downtown district.

Brackman said visitors are particularly attracted to the window that faces the town.

“I think a lot of people want to visualize the way this town used to be,” Brackman said. “There is a particular subdivision down at the bottom of the building where people look out the window and see the downtown Market Street area as it is now. There is also a photograph beside the window of the way the town used to be. People like to think about that. Some get discouraged, but others see it as hopeful, something that was really great, and they have the belief that it can be really great again in the future.”

Ryan said a lighted topographic map is another draw.

“In my opinion, one of the most interesting things to see is a topographic map of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and that tells the layers of history that Brownsville has experienced,” Ryan said. “We start that with the National Road and the Westward Expansion era to show how the different communities grew.”

Ryan said white lights on the map represent each of the National Road's 99 mile markers in the state.

Ryan said groupings in the heritage museum highlight the industries of the area, including old cast-iron and new fiberglass mile markers, a replica of a coal car, a boat from the building industry and an insignia from the railroad.

“In the lower level, we try to focus on artifacts of Brownsville,” Ryan said. She said that includes collections of old yearbooks, coal-related articles, old businesses that established in the town and more.

The Melega Museum serves to preserve the works of its namesake and promote the works of contemporary artists. Original paintings in the museum continue to be of great interest to avid art collectors. High-quality authorized reproductions are available in large prints at the museum.

The museum features a schedule of exhibits by contemporary artists that include Bud Gibbons, Terrance Hayes and Henry Emilson. This summer, the museum will host the second annual National Road Festival Juried Art Exhibition.

Near the Flatiron Building stands an acclaimed historical structure that is still utilized today.

Dunlap's Creek Bridge is the oldest cast-iron metal- arch span in the United States and, reportedly, the second oldest in the world.

“It's pretty remarkable. It actually holds two of same historic awards as the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty,” Brackman said of the bridge that opened to traffic in 1839.

“The local borough and the redevelopment authority are working to knock away some concrete piers and things that are covering up the bridge so visitors will be able to see the structure much more clearly by this time next year.”

Brackman said the community continues to embrace its heritage and take action for the future.

He said the Students in Action program at Brownsville Area High School recently finished first statewide and fourth nationally in an urban revitalization competition. The club's ideas to utilize space in town for new development such as a park are being put to use in the community.

Brackman said the museums' historic value is important for future generations.

“It's important for them to know how the country they are living in came from and developed, and that towns like Brownsville really did play a critical role,” Brackman said. “I think understanding our history allows us to move forward in a more informed direction.”

The Heritage Museum and Visitors Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, and 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The Melega Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. Both can be reached at 724-785-9331.

There is also a small gift shop in the museum.

Parking is available throughout downtown and in front of the old Union Station.

Colleen Pollock is a freelance writer.

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