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It’s all but guaranteed that the upcoming TEDxPhiladelphia conference, “The New Workshop of the World,” will leave an indelible impression that Philadelphia’s old Workshop of the World is caput. But that would be wrong.

Certainly, it’s a shadow of its former self. “At a postwar height in 1953,” historian Walter Licht tells us, “359,000 Philadelphians were employed in manufacture, 45 percent of the city’s entire labor force.” Today, the number is down to 5 percent, a mere 23,000 jobs. Gone are the Goliaths (Baldwin Locomotive Works, Midvale Steel, Stetson Hats and Quaker Lace) and even the Davids. Factories have been closed, abandoned and erased from the cityscape.

But not entirely. At the edge of the tidy Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Tacony, hard by I-95, on the banks of the gray Delaware, sits a cluster of red-brick, factory buildings, a living, breathing vestige of the city’s industrial prowess. Here the old, original Workshop of the World lives on, as a survivor of times past.

11x14_DSCF6833DisstonPrecision, the successor to Henry Disston’s Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel & File Works, may be of the past, but it isn’t living in the past. Inside the 19th-century buildings at New State Road and Knorr Street saws are still being made the way they always were. Sure, the number of workers there is less than one hundredth of what it once was. But today’s 24 employees are using the same skills and are guided by the same ideals of quality, innovation, craft and community that Henry Disston started with at his first location in Northern Liberties in 1840 and brought to Tacony in 1872.

Disston, described as a “born mechanic,” served his apprenticeship in saw-making in the 1830s and institutionalized that process of teaching and learning skills for generations to come. By the time of his death in 1878, the company had 55 apprentices, each of whom would share and perpetuate the founder’s commitment to quality, innovation and production.

Those were traits found in many Philadelphia-based industries. What set Disston apart from the others was its dedication to community. In 1872, shortly after Disston bought 390 acres of farmland near the Buttermilk Tavern on the Delaware, the company constructed houses and made them available to employees at low interest thanks to the Disston-owned Tacony Savings Fund Society. The company built its community a school, a library, a music hall and a church (of handsome left over grindstones from the factory). Some saw this as utopian, others interpreted it as paternalistic. Everyone agreed it made for a “well ordered and healthful village.”

8x10_DSCF6822By 1916, Disston employed 2,800 men and women. Its factory campus covered 64 acres with as many buildings. By the company’s one-hundredth anniversary in 1940, they turned out more than five million sharp tools each year and dominated the American handsaw business, with an astounding 75 percent share of the handsaw market. To the world at large, the Disston name was synonymous with saws.

Today, Disston is no longer about scale, but the original commitment to quality, and the related trait of continuity live on. Disston had cultivated that from its start. As far back as 1887, according to a Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics, 400 of the firm’s 700 employees had 10 or more years of service and more than 161 had been working for more than 20. More than three decades later, nearly 40 percent of the firm’s 3,600 employees had been there at least 10 years. Even with DisstonPrecision’s smaller corporate footprint, there are employees who’ve been in place for decades. Then and now, they hone and teach skills essential to the operation.

Today, nearly 60 years after the Disston family sold the company, DisstonPrecision is among a small group of elite companies working to find its niche in an international industrial ecology. Not everyone would be willing to bet on such a company. But Jack Lucid, a former Wall Street investment banker, is one who would. Last month, Lucid bought the assets of DisstonPrecision. Today, he runs the place.

11x14_DSCF6843What would compel a 21st-century, marathon-running, finance man from Sea Girt, N. J., to buy a gritty, drafty, 127,000-square-foot factory? What would draw a savvy businessman from Wall Street to the remnant of a legendary Philadelphia company that crafted the justly famous 110-inch diameter, 675-pound circular saws that turned America’s forests into lumber? Could it be that Lucid’s stint as a history major in college made him a romantic for the American industrial past?

No. “I’m a hardcore capitalist,” Lucid says. “I wouldn’t buy a company just because it was old.”

And in the 21st century, it’s no longer about taking down trees. It’s about building new urban forests. The saws crafted today by DisstonPrecision are essential for that kind of growth. Their 82 ½-inch diameter, 5/8-inch-thick circular saws have 600 hardened teeth that can bite through steel I-beams in seconds. And as old cities expand and new cities sprout up—the world’s urban population is expected to double by 2050—it’s a good bet that there’ll be a lot of steel I-beams to cut. This is the kind of challenge that appeals to Lucid, who liked banking well enough. But “money is a concept,” he says. “Here, you are selling something tangible.”

11x14_DSCF6826How much 21st-century steel will be cut by Philly-made saws? If trends tell us anything, it’s not as much as you might think, despite the current, worldwide urbanization trend. Concrete is the building material of choice for buildings in Asia and Africa, continents where most of the new cities are rising. Last year, only three percent of the world’s skyscrapers were all-steel construction, a far cry, claims the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, from the 1970s, when 90 percent of the 100 tallest buildings in the world were constructed of steel.

Would that make Jack Lucid worry? Not so much. We’re “good at making flat sharp objects” and while “the name is helpful,” Lucid and his engineering team are planning to develop new products lines and extend the lines they have. If this outpost of Philadelphia’s old, original Workshop of the World promises anything, it promises to maintain the best of the old traditions in new ways.

As Lucid sits back in his sparse, second-floor office, looking beyond his factory to the Delaware River, he thinks about the future and looks forward to its possibilities. “If we make this work,” Lucid says, “it’ll be good for everybody.”

Modern Photos by Maria Pouchnikova

Vintage photos of the plant courtesy of Disston Precision