December 15, 2005
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Image courtesy Rockwell Group
In 2003 the once-great Bethlehem Steel
Company closed its doors for good, ending, some said, the
industrial age in America. Now, those doors may open to the
age of culture, as a proposal is being developed to make the
steel mills the backdrop for a new city arts center called
The 200,000 square-foot facility, whose
conceptual plans are being developed by New York-based Rockwell
Group with Boston-based Design Lab Architects, will be, pending
funding, woven in, under, and around the monumental mill structures.
A 50,000 square-foot Festival Hall, which will seat up to
3,000 people for music and large events, will use the main
blast furnace as its backdrop, revealed via a huge glass curtain
at the back of the facility. Other venues will include a 500-seat
performing arts theater, a 300-seat music venue, and 25,000
square-feet of performing arts education space.
The project is being developed by local
non-profit cultural foundation Artsquest, the Pennsylvania
Youth Ballet, the Pennsylvania Youth Theater, and the Hispanic
American League of Artists. The 3.5 acres of land for the
project was donated from BethWorks Now, a developer that is
hoping to build a commercial and residential complex on the
mill site. No funding has been secured, but the team has obtained
several seed contributions from local donors, and is hoping
to attract government funding in the coming months. Officials
say they cannot discuss the projects pricetag at this
Rockwell Group principal David Rockwell
says the buildings, mostly cubes (although hes not ruling
out anything rounder), will employ a similar industrial
aesthetic to the mills, employing steel and masonry, for instance.
They will not, however, try to compete with the size and scale
of the gargantuan mills, which Rockwell likens to the Grand
Canyons of industry.
Building next to the massive furnaces
and forges of these industrial icons will present some challenges,
Rockwell acknowledges. Much of the project is adjacent to
an elevated train track that runs through the mills, and the
buildings will likely be elevated to lessen vibration issues.
In recent years the arts community has taken off in Bethlehem,
known for so many years for its steel production. ArtsQuest
president Jeff Parks says that the city already has 1200 arts
students taking part in arts after school and summer programs.
His organizations Banana Factory, an old
distribution facility turned into an arts center, contains
several arts groups, while the yearly festiva,l Summerfest,
hosts 500 bands and about a million people a year. Much of
Summerfests performances would take place in Steelstax,
Completion is set for 2008. Rockwell
acknowledges this is ambitious, but people in this once-great
steel town are eager to move forward, especially after plans
for such a facility have stalled before. BethWorks Now is
on hold pending a decision on whether to allow gambling on
the site. The mills themselves are set for renovation, a separate
project that is still in early discussions.