by Brian Libby
Next to the defunct blast furnaces of the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — a poignant symbol of changing times — stands a growing arts complex with industrial heritage at center stage.
Those massive furnaces (and their smaller predecessors) once helped produce steel for such iconic structures as the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, and Hoover Dam, along with armaments for World Wars I and II. Located on the Lehigh River, in the middle of Bethlehem, the plant employed generations of workers and forged the town's industrial identity.
"We all grew up here and it was within eyeshot of our homes," says Joseph Biondo, a principal at ArtQuest Center designers Spillman Farmer Architects. "We remember the furnaces with their flames and smoke and sounds. I always thought of it as an incredible pipe organ. It was a source of great reverence."
Founded as an iron works in the mid-1800s, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation grew to become one of the largest steel producers in the United States. But it suffered against foreign competition in the 1970s and '80s, leading to extensive layoffs and then to closure of the main plant in 1995. The company ultimately declared bankruptcy in 2001.
For about a decade, the gigantic site of around 1,800 acres (730 hectares) stood empty, its structures deteriorating. The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the plant as one of country's most endangered historic places in 2004.
Since then, several commercial and industrial developments have occurred on various portions of the site. Some of these projects have been architecturally generic, such as the new Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem and its accompanying hotel and shopping mall.
The story is different at the new SteelStacks arts and cultural campus, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) to the west. Its centerpiece, located directly opposite the plant's towering blast furnaces, is the ArtsQuest Center designed by Spillman Farmer Architects.
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