Robert A. Macoskey Center

ALTER-ing the Future

Dr. Robert Macoskey was a philosophy professor at Slippery Rock University. And today, he is remembered by the Robert A. Macoskey Center. This is a state of the art eco-home and grounds devoted to making a healthier tomorrow. Robert A. Macoskey came to Slippery Rock University in 1972. Dr. Macoskey would teach at Slippery Rock for 18 years in the philosophy department; all the while being the driving force for the environmental programs on campus. Macoskey was infectiously enthusiastic and very practical, allowing the ideas of his project(s) to become a reality. Dr. Macoskey was deeply interested in environmental care. He was quoted as saying, “I got my degree in Church History and found it interesting to dig into the old books. But one day it hit me that all that was so much like filing my fingernails while the house was on fire. That’s why I left history and put my life into trying to work out a way that might lead us to a sane future.”

Macoskey was not alone in this mind-set. There have been conservation efforts all throughout history. Starting as early as 1854 there are records of people trying to inform others of the damage to the environment. In fact the first national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872 in an effort to preserve it. And conservation groups have been around just as long, in 1886 The National Audubon Society formed to save birds from being plucked for women’s hats. After WWII things really got moving though. In 1949 Aldo Leopold write a book promoting environmental awareness. Then, in the 1960s, Silent Spring written by Pittsburgh native Rachel Carson came out as well as many national preservation acts. The 1970s began with the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) which mandated environmental impact reviews which set the tone for the rest of the 1970s. During the early 1980s the world’s population hit 4.5 billion and weather catastrophes increased almost 55%. So many people turned once again to the environment to look to see what they could do to save the world.The culminating project for Macoskey was his Alternative Living Technologies and Energy Research project that he believed would ‘alter’ the views of agriculturalists, by demonstrating a non-chemical alternative.

The Alternative Living Technologies and Energy Research project, or ALTER for short, was a magnificent complex proposed by Macoskey in 1983. The ALTER project was to have housing for 150 permanent staff, students, and visiting researchers. He also envisioned conference center to house another 100 people for educational outreach events. The ALTER center would be autonomous, allowing the ALTER community to research what they wanted. Namely, ways to create food and energy in a way that would not negatively impact humans or the environment. This masterfully planned project had the cost of $30,000,000 attached to it. Macoskey and the ALTER committee sent out pamphlets detailing what ALTER was and asking locals residents to donate so they too could be a part of ALTER. The Slippery Rock Archives in Bailey Library has several blank ones left over from this fundraising campaign.

Despite his best efforts, donations and grants were insufficient to build the center Macoskey and the board of ALTER members desired. But Macoskey was still determined to get the project off the ground. He developed a proposal to take an old house seated on campus property and renovate it into the Harmony Homestead. This required the university’s permission, and eventually he was able to move forward with his plans. By fall of 1984, he had received a state grant to help buy the home and renovate it. Many of the people who helped them renovate were volunteers and ALTER committee members, as well as students. During the first refit, they added air exchangers, a grey-water recycling system, and a composting toilet, among other improvements to the home. The Harmony House was dedicated on the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day, April 22, 1990 and first occupied that fall. Students in the university’s brand-new graduate program in Sustainable Systems (also created by Macoskey) lived in the house full-time as caretakers and managers.

Unfortunately, all of the ALTER project work came to a screeching halt when Dr. Macoskey suddenly passed away in 1990. While the program continued to run, the road was much rockier without the bright beacon of their founder. In the 10 years after his death, the Harmony House was refitted again and the ALTER project gained a few new buildings on its complex. Outer buildings, solar panels, a straw-bale greenhouse, the Harmony barn, and gardens were all added to the property.

The Robert A. Macoskey Center continues to do research there and offer workshops, bringing environmental awareness to those in the community.They also run farmers markets and farm to table collaborations with the dietary department on campus. In 1997, just two days before Earth Day, the Harmony House and property was dedicated as the Robert A. Macoskey Center to commemorate the man with the vision to ALTER the world.

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