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Fantastical Place: Bethlehem Steel

I have been scanning slides on my new super fast scanner so you all get to travel back into 1980’s Buffalo over the next few weeks. My industrial images were some of the most interesting that I took back then.  These amazing scenes are from the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna shortly after it was shut down.  A college classmate of mine somehow wrangled a tour through the massive factory for a hand full of us architecture students. We had an escort but were allowed to go anywhere we wanted. The images give only a hint of the emotional power this place had on us. Let me just say it was as memorable an experience as anyplace I have been in the world.  Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Soul, it was on that level as a place to experience. The spaces, forms, and complexity of the place is really indescribable.  How can you convey the real beauty of a massive steel cauldron made to carry molten steel?  You can’t!

On our tour the shuttered plant was eerily quiet giving a sense of the end of civilization. To see this once intensely active place so still gave the buildings a cathedral like aura. This was during the cold war when armageddon themes were very popular in culture and movies leading us all to thoughts of the end of civilization. Our walk around its seemingly endless grounds, filled with an incomprehensible tangle of pipes and trestles, was humbling. I tried to imagine the powerful machine this place was while in operation. Bethlehem’s influence on the Buffalo area was huge both economically and physically.  As a kid, living on the eastern edge of Lackawanna miles from the plant, I could hear the distant metallic sound of Bethlehem and the nightly slag pours lit the entire western sky.I remember the physical power of the factory from many trips down adjacent Route 5 while the plant was still fully operational.  Giant billows of smoke pushed into the air with a thick acrid smell next to pipes shooting 20 foot flames straight up into the sky, next to trains moving loads of coal and steel.  The little wood frame houses directly across the street from the plant looked forlorn and forgotten.  I felt sorry for the people who lived in these houses which were literally in the shadow of the giant plumes of pollution.   Today the massive plant of steel, concrete, and brick is gone but the little wooden houses are still there and surprisingly don’t look that bad. 
Soon after I took these pictures demolition of the steel plant began. Pretty much the entire thing is gone now.  I don’t think any kind of documentation was done at this place that played no small part in building our country.   This incredible piece of human effort is gone and very few people know what was there.  I am not arguing that it should have been saved.  For sure a place like this would be hard to ever repurpose.  But when we do remove incredible things like this the least we can do is make sure we document it thoroughly.  I do think the windmills now on the site are a fitting monument to the plant even if they were not meant as such.  I wish they would put a few hundred of them on the site and make this once again an extraordinary place. 
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Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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