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Blast from the Past
WRT to revive Bethlehem Steel plant with 21st-century town square
The derelict Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, will become the backdrop for a new public space and arts complex.
Thomas Grim

After lying dormant for more than a decade, Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem Steel complex is poised for rebirth with a new public space at its core. Once the second-largest producer of steel in the United States, the plant and its iconic blast furnaces will become the backdrop for a 4.5-acre arts cultural campus that is expected to draw 750,000 visitors to the Lehigh Valley each year. Called SteelStacks, the project is a result of years of planning by local group ArtsQuest and public broadcaster PBS 39 following the plant’s closure in 1995 and its partial conversion into the Sands Casino, open last year.

Philadelphia-based firm Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) will design the centerpiece of the public-private venture, a three-block area called the 21st Century Town Square. “It has to function as a very flexible space,” said Ignacio Bunster, the WRT principal in charge of the project. The square will be used for farmers’ markets, celebrations, and ArtsQuest programming, and will face an outdoor stage sponsored by the Leavitt Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Spillman Farmer Architects designed ArtsQuest, a performing arts center that will adaptively reuse the shell of the old blast furnace.
Courtesy ArtsQuest

The firm had its first workshop with stakeholders in February, and plans to deliver final proposals by late spring. WRT is working with a team that includes L’Observatoire International Lighting and artist Ned Kahn to round out a scheme of public seating, park space, and interactive educational features. Bunster said the project is advancing quickly, so that portions can be complete in time for the 65,000-square-foot ArtsQuest Performing Arts Center opening in 2011. The adjacent PBS 39 Broadcast Center is scheduled to break ground in June.

Paramount in the design process is a respect for the site’s industrial heritage. “We are keenly aware of the visual impact of the steel stacks,” said Bunster. “We don’t want to do anything to upset the views of them. Anything like lights or a pavilion for performances won’t be obstructing the original structure.”

WRT is programming the 4.5 acres surrounding the old stacks, including ArtsQuest (right).
Courtesy Spillman Farmer

Though the stacks won’t be altered, the plan includes proposals for the adaptive reuse of several Bethlehem buildings. The Performing Arts Center, designed by architect-of-record Spillman Farmer Architects, will use the factory’s 4,000-square-foot former blast furnace room as a multipurpose community space and a two-screen cinema. The city plans to transform the 8,000-square-foot, stone-and-brick industrial stock house, constructed in 1863, into its new visitors center. Phase Two of the campus plans would include a new ArtsQuest Festival Center located in the factory’s former turn-and-grind shop.

With a recent $250,000 grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the project is attracting big-name benefactors. And as SteelStacks begins a public campaign for donations to finance the $42 million undertaking, more are likely to come on board. The site has made a powerful impact on the design team, too. “We do work all over the country on similar public space projects,” said Bunster. “There’s really nothing out there that has this history and setting.”

Jennifer K. Gorsche