West Point Foundry Preserve Interpretive Program

Lost and Foundry

C&G Partners’ interpretive EGD program for the West Point Foundry Preserve breathes new life into an historic site by bringing the past to the present.

The 87-acre West Point Foundry Preserve in Cold Spring, New York, might have remained one of the greatest undiscovered industrial archaeological gems in America had it not been for Scenic Hudson, which purchased the site in 1996 to create an historic preserve.

Often called “the Silicon Valley of the 19th century,” from 1818 to 1911 the water-powered West Point Foundery designed and manufactured armaments, steam engines, industrial machinery, housewares, and cast-iron facades. Up to 1,000 workers toiled at the site around the clock. The foundry was most famous for producing cannons, including the long-range Parrott guns that helped the Union win the Civil War.

Nearly 100 years later, all but one of the buildings had been demolished and the site was an assemblage of forgotten ruins in a heavily wooded ravine that abuts the Hudson River.

“When we purchased the property, it contained such an important resource, had such significant archaeological remains, and was also in such a scenic area that we wanted it to be an accessible, exciting historic preserve,” explains Rita Shaheen, Director of Parks at Scenic Hudson. The group spent the next eight years working with Michigan Tech’s industrial archaeological program (which directed six seasons of digs on the site), industrial experts from Europe, and a Cold Spring think tank to uncover the site’s history and help inform new uses for the land.

In 2006, Scenic Hudson tapped Mathews Nielsen landscape architects to realize its vision, one informed by community and other stakeholders. And for the interpretive elements, Shaheen says, “We wanted something that was light on the land, historically accurate yet contemporary, and had a dialogue with the old ruins.”

Rebranding the Preserve

“We believe very strongly in creating place but not doing it artificially,” says Keith Helmetag, principal of C&G Partners, which created the environmental graphic design program. “When you build and refresh a place on a foundation and in ruins with an extraordinary history, the task is remarkably easy if you’re willing to just respond to the information that lies in front of you.”

In this case, C&G had plenty of material to work with, beginning with the slab-serif typography that existed on the foundry’s original raw-iron stamp and laid the groundwork for the Preserve’s rebranding.

Beginning with the site’s main identity monument, the cast-iron typeface is a dominant feature throughout the EGD program. The Preserve’s name is introduced in 2.5-ft.-high curved cast-iron letters by sculptor Jan Spoerri that appear to be “wrapped around the original pig, or form,” Helmetag says, while also evoking the spirit of the cannons that were legendary for being built on the site. The letters are set over a stainless steel gabion, anchored in place by carefully placed brick fragments taken from the foundry’s surface ruins. The repurposing of the brick serves a dual purpose: it’s a nod to the site’s historic past and also a way to re-use materials from the site. In addition to its wish for an easy-to-maintain and weather- and vandal-proof signage system, Scenic Hudson wanted the interpretive elements to incorporate materials that are either recyclable or could be recycled. 

A direct reference to the site’s historic past, the modern cast-iron West Point Foundry Preserve lettering and an updated seal from 1818 also appear on five kiosks that define portals to the site. Contemporary additions to the seal, such as graphic cattails of the nearby marsh and a stylized white oak wreath frame, reference the site’s transformation as a second-growth forest during the 20th century. While the branded kiosks acknowledge Scenic Hudson and list site rules and regulations, they also offer narratives on daily life during the 1800s in Cold Spring and at the original foundry.

Telling the story

Eight years of research had uncovered a wealth of information about the site’s storied past, but Scenic Hudson wanted to highlight three scenes in the EGD program: the foundry’s role in the Civil War, its role in the Industrial Revolution, and how nature had reclaimed the land/the Superfund cleanup of contamination from another off-site entity.

One of several unique interpretive elements C&G created is the gun platform, a 32-foot-high wood structure that sits on a raised promontory overlooking the remediated marsh. During the foundry’s heyday, each Parrott gun was tested from the hanging gantry of the original three-story-high gun platform for velocity, accuracy, and impact. C&G recreated the gun platform with seating in the lower sections, an interpretive panel on the hoist describing the platform’s history and the marsh’s more recent Superfund cleanup, and a decorative roof structure with wood-cut-like illustrations of the site’s flora and fauna by Stephen Alcorn.

Helmetag says the use of woodcuts is a reference to the early 1800s, when wood type and woodcuts were often used to depict painted illustrations. On the boardwalk, a 12-ft.-long stainless steel silhouette of the 300-pound Parrott gun is inscribed with a Civil War-era article from The New York Times describing the foundry and its armaments.

Another highlight of the EGD program is a partial replica of the Boring Mill. At 36 feet in diameter, the Boring Mill waterwheel was at the time one of the largest in America, driving metal-finishing equipment that rifled the Parrot cannons and other factory products. Rather than recreate a working waterwheel—which Helmetag says would have aroused concern about people climbing over it or burning it—C&G designed an historically accurate section of the Boring Mill in marine-grade stainless steel in its original channel, discovered during excavations by Michigan Tech’s archaeological team. Constructed by Hatfield Metal Fabrication, the 15,000-lb. replica was assembled on site. Interpretive panels mounted on the rail of an adjacent stairwell feature historic images, descriptive text, and a watercolor depiction of the Boring Mill by artist Kevin Woest that shows how it likely looked in its heyday, based on historical documents and archaeological findings.

The staircase bridges two elevations—the exhibits lining the forest and Foundry Road, a well-worn path along the ravine that workers traveled on their way home from the foundry—and provided an opportunity for another interpretive gesture. Text and historical images mounted onto cast-aluminum panels were attached discretely to the stair risers so that, as pedestrians ascend the stairs, they can learn how water was pumped from the Foundry Brook to drive the Boring Mill waterwheel and other factory machinery.

Getting it right

The EGD program is designed for longevity, with materials such as marine-grade stainless steel, cast iron, and powdercoated steel used throughout. Graphic panels by SH Immersive Environments (formerly Systeme Huntingdon) incorporate rust-proof aluminum backing to withstand the area’s extreme weather conditions and the site’s positioning in a flood plain.

Chris Meyer, president of project fabricator Meyer Contracting, says the project’s logistics were difficult. His team had to build temporary roads out of nontraditional materials that wouldn’t damage the environment. Not only did they need to rebuild the stonework for the Boring Mill’s foundation, but then scattered original rubble around it to make it look like it had always been there. With the project’s intense focus on historical accuracy, it took eight months to approve the gun platform graphics, and Meyer then had to incorporate lightning protection for its metal roof. The 200-pound cast-iron seals produced by Robinson Iron went through several rounds of revisions to ensure they would fit in the metal frames created by Hatfield.

Meyer admits he didn’t see how things would come together with so many artists and fabricators collaborating on the project. “When I first bid the job, I didn’t see the vision,” Meyer says. “But through the process, as I saw how everyone took responsibility for their part of the project, I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. It was a true collaboration.”

For C&G, incorporating the various artistic elements created by outside collaborators enriched the project and ensured it spoke with multiple voices. In the case of the Boring Mill, no actual photographs of the original existed, so the watercolor by Woest, which was based on years of forensics by Michigan Tech, depicts how water likely traveled through the site and through flumes to back-shot water to drive rifling machines on multiple floors. Helmetag says, “The project was much like the Foundery was in its heyday—a collaboration among designers, artisans, and craftspeople to create a new kind of transformative project.”

For Scenic Hudson and especially Shaheen, who has shepherded the project since its inception, it was important to get the project right to honor the site’s history and the Cold Spring community.

“There isn’t a lot of open space in Cold Spring, and the community is very careful about what comes into the village,” she says. “This project was definitely different, much larger, and much more involved than practically any other project we’ve ever done. But the designers nailed it, we’re getting great feedback, and people feel a sense of pride about the Preserve.”

--By Jenny S. Reising, eg magazine No. 09, 2014


Client:  Scenic Hudson

Location:  Cold Spring, N.Y.

Project Area:  87 acres

Open Date:  October 2013

Design:  C&G Partners interpretive exhibits, signage, and graphics

Design Team:  Keith Helmetag principal; Amy Siegel lead designer; Brandon Downing research, writing, and design; Justine Gaxotte designer; Daniel Fouad design renderer; Kendall Tynes graphic designer

Landscape Architects:  Mathews Nielsen

Consultants:  Stephen Alcorn woodcut illustrations, Exhibitology detailing, Kevin Woest watercolor renderings, Emery Pajer cartography, MPress monograph printer, Putnam History Museum historic images

Fabrication:  Meyer Contracting Corporation exhibit fabrication, SH Immersive Environments (formerly Systeme Huntington) graphic panels, Hatfield Metal Fabrication custom ironwork and armatures, Robinson Iron cast-iron seals, Jan Spoerri main identity sculpture

Photos:  Alex Ellipsis

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