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07.07.2009
Bell Labs Back in Limbo
Saarinen's famed corporate villa in need of rescue plan
The midcentury landscape at Bell Labs, designed by Sasaki, Walker & Associates, was a flashpoint during recent development negotiations.
Lee Beaumont

Despite the announcement last August that Eero Saarinen’s iconic Bell Labs campus in Holmdel, New Jersey, had found a developer committed to its preservation, the building’s fate is once more in jeopardy. Contract purchaser Somerset Development is unable to finance Bell Labs’ retrofitting without building additional housing on the site, which the township fears will overburden their schools and roads—and which preservationists fear will mar the site’s historically significant design.

The 472-acre Bell Labs site housed research scientists from 1962 until its closing in 2007 by current owner Alcatel-Lucent. The building’s exemplary midcentury modernist design, and its landscaped grounds designed by Sasaki, Walker & Associates, have earned it a place on Preservation New Jersey’s list of “10 Most Endangered Historic Sites.”

Somerset’s current plan would convert the building into a mixed-use center with residential lofts on the top floor, preserving most of the famous mirrored facade but opening up one axis to turn its central atrium into a pedestrian street. Up to 600 additional units of housing would be built within the “ring road” surrounding the building.

UNDER SOMERSET'S PROPOSAL, The expansive atrium would be opened as a pedestrian street.
Ezra Stoller/Esto

The site is currently zoned for offices and laboratories, and the township has so far been unwilling to rezone it as mixed-use. “The argument that has been made [for demolition],” said township committeewoman Janet Berk, “is that if they need that many residential units to make the building viable, then that’s not a tradeoff we’re willing to make.” Somerset president Ralph Zucker pointed to the support that his proposal had received at two community meetings: “We think this is a situation where the town leaders unintentionally painted themselves into a corner prematurely.”

Adding to concerns over Bell Labs’ fate is a report that the township commissioned from independent consultant Reva Partners, which made no mention of the building’s architectural significance and recommended that it be replaced with multimillion-dollar houses and amenities such as a private golf course and equestrian center. The report’s release this spring prompted Alcatel-Lucent to pen a letter to Holmdel’s mayor expressing how “disappointed” they were with its verdict.

“It just seems astonishing that the report would not mention the building’s pedigree or innovative design,” said architect and preservationist Michael Calafati, who held a charrette last year to envision potential adaptive reuses of Bell Labs such as a health care center and center for graduate studies. The charrette won an award from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection this May and was cited by Zucker as an inspiration for Somerset’s plans.

under the plan, most of the mirrored facade would remain, but other aspects of the grounds could be significantly altered.
Nina rappaport

However, the new housing in Somerset’s proposal has caused concern among charrette participants such as architect Belmont Freeman, who urged that the building be given “breathing room.” “With the axial views you get as you come in, it’s almost like arriving at Versailles,” he said. “I’d hate to see that compromised.” Zucker maintains that the trees and landscaping would buffer Bell Labs itself from the new construction and that he would preserve views from and to the road.

Charrette co-organizer Nina Rappaport conceded the challenges posed by Bell Labs, particularly its immense size and exurban location, but argued that it has the potential to set a valuable precedent. “We don’t have any great examples of this kind of reuse yet,” she said. “That’s why I think it’s so important to do this one right so it can serve as a model for others.”

Julia Galef