Gateway to the Past

New Jersey's Roebling Museum honors an industrial giant

By the time local activists thought about saving the Main Gate Building of the old mill in Roebling, N.J., it had suffered prolonged neglect. Built by Charles Roebling in 1907, the gateway provided access for thousands of workers manufacturing wire rope for some of America's most celebrated suspension bridges, including the Golden Gate and the George Washington. (Bridge building was a Roebling family tradition. Charles' father, John Augustus, designed the Brooklyn Bridge. His brother was chief engineer for the span.) But the Roebling Mill was shuttered in 1974, and entire sections of the Main Gate floor crumbled into the basement. Trees poked through the slate roof. Of the walls that survived, some were scorched by arson.

None of this deterred Donna McElrea, 54, whose father was among the workers dismissed when the factory closed. McElrea has lived her entire life in the workers' village—now a National Historic District—that Charles Roebling built adjacent to the mill. And soon after she became president of the Roebling Historical Society in 1996, she led a band of volunteers on a mission to turn the Main Gate into a museum.

For onlookers aware of the daunting challenges, the undertaking inspired little optimism. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had declared the mill's 240 acres a Superfund site and begun clearing 70 years' worth of industrial waste. Of 70 original factory buildings, 50 were demolished. But not the Main Gate. "We knew—all of us knew—we had a story to tell here in Roebling," McElrea says.

To the delight of the society's members, the EPA spent nearly $6 million to restore the building's original cream-and-brown stucco walls and build galleries and office space inside. Meanwhile, volunteers raised $400,000 to buy office equipment, create a gift shop, and hire an executive director. Their efforts were rewarded last summer when the meticulously restored Main Gate reopened as a 7,000-square-foot museum. Solomon + Bauer Architects of Watertown, Mass., led the project.

"We worked so hard for this—over a decade on this—just out of love, a love of history," says George Lengel, 69, a lifelong Roebling resident who leads walking tours of the village.

The new museum's galleries, created by Tucker Design of Philadelphia, depict the life of the factory through paintings, photographs, blueprints, employee identification badges, documents, and tools. Volunteer archivists digitized a trove of 12,000 employment records and are indexing thousands of photos and engineers' drawings. One massive black-and-white photograph shows workers spinning the cables atop the Golden Gate Bridge in 1935.

 "The museum has an enormous emotional pull for the people in town," says Martha Moore, president of the board of directors and a great-great-great-granddaughter of John Augustus Roebling. "It's very gratifying for them to see that someone has taken a story they felt very strongly about and told it to the world." 

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.