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Bethlehem Group Hopes to Build Arts Center Within City's Old Steel Mills

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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 “SteelStax.”

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 project’s pricetag at this point.

Rockwell Group principal David Rockwell says the buildings, mostly cubes (although he’s 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 organization’s “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 Summerfest’s performances would take place in Steelstax, says Parks.

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.

Sam Lubell