A Program for the Conservation, Interpretation, and Reuse of Downdraft Kilns at the Western Clay Manufacturing Company of Helena, Montana
industrial heritage conservation
Historic Preservation and Conservation
This is the second thesis generated by a collaborative effort between the Montana Preservation Alliance, the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, and the University of Pennsylvania's Master's Program in Historic Preservation to research, document, and conserve architectural components of the former Western Clay Manufacturing Company of Helena, Montana. This project's focus is the complex of five downdraft brick kilns and sheds (built between 1905 and 1922), which drove production at Western Clay until at least 1957 and now constitutes an iconic backdrop for the Archie Bray Foundation, one of the country's foremost centers for contemporary ceramic art. The goal of the project was to provide the Bray with a series of recommendations for how the kilns might be stabilized, interpreted to the public, and put to new use. Three chapters—a contextual history of brick kilns; a diagnostic, materials-based analysis of the Western Clay prototypes; and a discussion of industrial heritage conservation and relevant, clay-related case studies—culminate in the delivery of the said recommendations as a final, concluding chapter—the conservation program. Oral histories, publications in industrial archaeology, and period trade literature pertaining to brick-firing form the bulk of the thesis’ resource base. A symptomatic conditions survey of a kiln exterior and a series of laboratory tests run on kiln brick and soil samples inform the materials-based portions of the study. Ultimately, the stabilization and limited reuse of the kilns as exhibition and performance spaces are encouraged, as is the formation of partnerships with organizations striving, like the Bray, to institute craft- and art-making at sites traditionally employed in the manufacture of goods using similar media.