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Bethlehem Steel: Disposable Architecture or Iconic Landmark?

That’s the ultimate question of the Bethlehem Steel Administration building and unfortunately it looks as if the question has already been answered by the City of Lackawanna officials and the owners. Thankfully, there are still people who don’t want to see this Beaux-Arts beauty sent to the landfill like so many great buildings before it. The reason for the demolition has been said to be due to the deteriorated state of the building which poses an immediate safety concern. It’s been largely open to the elements and deteriorating for the better part of thirty years, so why is now the time for it to go rather than be rehabilitated?

Preservationists are asking that question and one of them has the potential answers for a successful rehabilitation and reuse of the iconic landmark. Darren Cotton, from UB’s Urban Planning graduate program, wrote his master’s thesis specifically on the reuse of this building. He was kind enough to share the document with me, which includes precedent studies, various reuse scenarios, identifying key players, and even rehabilitation time lines.

As Darren so aptly points out, the master plan for Lackawanna’s waterfront calls specifically for the reuse of this building. “The former employment office of the Bethlehem Steel Plant represents a unique architectural form within the former steel plant complex. Due to the importance of steelmaking operations to the growth and development of the City, it is in the public interest to promote the preservation of locally significant structures which can serve as a reminder to our area residents of the site’s history. Public and private dollars shall be used…to rehabilitate the structure into a regional trade center.” That was written in 1989 and apparently in the last 22 years none of what the City proposed to its residents has materialized on the site.

Darren also cites the prime location in relation to the recent improvements of the Buffalo waterfront nearby. Additionally, site contamination is a concern, but through Darren’s thorough research he discovered that the area directly around the building has never been built on and would likely require very little remediation.

Western New York usually doesn’t go more than three days without an article in the paper that discusses what should be down with the area’s waterfront. The master plan for Buffalo’s inner harbor calls for any new buildings around the new canals to be an interpretation of what was there historically. It seemed like a fantastic idea decades ago to tear down all those terrible buildings for the sake of new development, which still hasn’t happened on a large scale. The administration building in Lackawanna represents an opportunity to embrace heritage rather than maybe replicating it further down the road.

Look what other cities like Johnstown, PA have done with their former steel mill complexes. Rather than sending it all to the landfill, the city put a spotlight on their industrial heritage which is now a great tourist destination. There are countless other cities throughout the world that have followed suit, but Lackawanna isn’t one of them. The opportunity has been squandered as most of the site has been landfilled with the exception of a few structures and the administration building.

Now consider the location of the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, adjacent to the recent investment of Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. New infrastructure, plantings, signage, urban furniture, etc. has all been installed within the last two years to mark the beginnings of new waterfront for the region. You can spot Bethlehem Steel from the Union Ship canal only feet away. It’s reuse could be a fantastic draw to the waterfront and fundamentally link Lackawanna and Buffalo.

A final interesting piece in the whole puzzle is the matter of the Restore NY money which was slated for the rehabilitation, not the demolition of this structure. In a recent letter from a NY State Historic Preservation Office representative, there was discussion of the funds being used to, “abate/remediate the building and make it ‘Preservation Ready.'” That’s quite the opposite of what is currently happening as demo equipment prepares to start the demolition today.

Tonight at Lackawanna’s City Hall many concerned citizens, preservationists, and others will be joining together to make their case to the city to halt the demolition. Everyone is more than welcome to attend the meeting which starts at 6:30 at 714 Ridge Road, Lackawanna, New York 14218. You can officially join the event on the Buffalo’s Young Preservation Facebook page.

Special thanks to Darren Cotton for his great research and knowledge and David Torke who has brought to light many of these details.

Darren’s proposed timeline for rehabilitation 

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