Retrospect: A look back at Roderick D. MacKenzie’s steel series

A Mobile artist became known for his striking images of the steel industry.

This year marks the centennial of an unlikely meeting between a Mobile artist and a Birmingham steel executive. In the summer of 1921, Roderick D. MacKenzie paid a visit to the office of George Gordon Crawford, president of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. (TCI), and requested permission to spend two weeks painting scenes inside the Ensley steel mill. The project grew into a residency of many years and resulted in an iconic group of nearly 50 pastel paintings entitled “Spirit of the Furnaces.”

Founded in 1852, TCI first entered Birmingham through a series of mergers in the mid-1880s. The company moved its headquarters to the city in 1895. Subsequent construction of a massive open-hearth furnace at its Ensley plant allowed TCI to become a steel manufacturer outright, instead of merely a supplier of pig iron for other steel companies. When it commenced operations in November 1899, the new furnace helped raise TCI’s profile in the industry. But after a series of additional mergers and expansions were hampered by a financial panic and the shutdown of many of its furnaces, executives at the cash-strapped TCI successfully negotiated a 1907 purchase by the U.S. Steel Corp.

To bring its new southern acquisition into the fold, U.S. Steel installed George Gordon Crawford as TCI’s new president. A mechanical engineer by training, Crawford studied chemistry in Germany and was considered by industry experts to be a young Carnegie protégé. His star rose quickly.

At TCI Crawford faced a pair of chief and interconnected
difficulties: a technical question of how best to maximize the use of lower-grade southern ore and a labor shortage brough
t about by poor living conditions. Over a two-decade tenure at TCI, Crawford solved both problems. His leadership helped to transform the Birmingham district into the largest iron and steel producer in the American South. A committed welfare capitalist, Crawford presided over improvements to the lives and living conditions of the employees of his mines and mills. When he took control of TCI, the annual employee turnover rate was an astounding 400%. When he left in 1930, it had fallen to 5.1%. Crawford was not a blustery apostle of the New South Creed but rather a pragmatist with a clear-eyed vision of what was necessary
to make the most out of the bountiful natural resources around
Alabama’s Magic City. In 1929, the year before Crawford departed Birmingham for Pittsburgh, TCI enjoyed the most productive non-wartime year in its history.

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The pencil-thin, mustachioed artist who entered Crawford’s office seeking admission to TCI was no less impressive. Born in London in 1865, Roderick MacKenzie arrived in Mobile in 1872. Orphaned at fifteen, he came of age under the care of Mobile’s Episcopal Church Home for Orphans, known today as Wilmer Hall. Encouraged there in his artistic talents, he trained as a painter and sculptor in Boston and Paris. In the early 1890s, MacKenzie undertook a series of commissions on the subcontinent of India, where the artist depicted tiger hunts and scenes of British rule, dined with maharajahs and immersed himself in the culture and color of a “new and wonderful world.”

Returning to Alabama in 1914, few projects held the artist’s
attention until 1920. While mourning the death of his wife,
MacKenzie visited his brother in Fairfield, one of industrial
Birmingham’s suburbs. Stunned by the enormity of the steel mills lining the area, MacKenzie resolved to capture the scenes on canvas.

Armed with Crawford’s consent, the artist approached his new project with unmatched vigor. He chose to depict the various stages of production at night, so the darkened sky would contrast the colorful displays from the molten blast furnaces and steaming slag pits. Dressed in overalls and a miner’s cap fitted with an acetylene lamp, he often painted until daybreak in close proximity to the behemoth machinery. Many of the scenes he sought to capture lasted for only an instant. “A flash and a flare — and then they were over,” he explained to a Birmingham reporter. “I sometimes keep four paintings going at the same time, changing from one to another as the different operations occur.” MacKenzie’s meticulous works were so accurate that TCI chemists could identify each stage of the production process in his paintings.

The initial pieces from “Spirit of the Furnaces” were first exhibited to great acclaim in November 1921. Critics praised the artist for his vibrant colors and credited him with bringing a sense of wonder, even beauty, to the rough-and-tumble process of producing iron and steel. George Gordon Crawford was so taken with the paintings that he asked MacKenzie for replicas to hang in his office and arranged for an exhibition at the American Iron and Steel Institute. The series was a point of pride as well for the City of Birmingham, which was in the midst of celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding.

Over the next decade, MacKenzie’s paintings of the Birmingham steel industry were reproduced in art journals, steel trade publications and even Fortune magazine. The series was the most successful work of the artist’s long and diverse career. But for all its critical acclaim, the paintings did not leave the aging artist financially secure. He died in Mobile in 1941, having never found a buyer for the series, which he maintained had to be sold as a group for the hefty sum of $50,000 —nearly $800,000 today. While many of MacKenzie’s steel paintings now reside at the Birmingham Museum of Art, others are scattered among museums and private collections throughout the country.

Although Birmingham’s iron and steel industry continues apace, the places MacKenzie depicted a century ago look quite different now. The Ensley plant featured most prominently in the steel series closed in 1980. A 1952 restructuring wiped the name TCI from the Birmingham landscape, making the company merely a division of U.S. Steel. As a busy Birmingham marks its 150th anniversary, “Spirit of the Furnaces” is a colorful reminder of the Magic City’s industrial history.

This story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Business Alabama.

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