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Bell Labs' soaring Atrium, seen here in 1964, was once a gathering place for some of last century's most vital tech innovators. Today, it's empty.

New Life For The Bell Labs Building Where Cellphones Were Born

Once the center of the tech-innovation universe, New Jersey's old Bell Labs building now sits abandoned. But not for long. A look at the plan to save it.

PAST:
In 1961, AT&T opened a Holmdel, New Jersey, building to house Bell Labs, its growing R&D division. Designed by the renowned modernist architect Eero Saarinen, the Holmdel Lab, as it came to be known, was both stylish and immense.

The austere, glass-walled structure (cost in 1959 dollars: $20 million) initially contained around 5,300 scientists, engineers, and other workers. Much of today's electronic communication was born there, including the earliest cellular telephone systems. "You had the sense of working in a complete city, with everything you needed," says Richard Frenkiel, one of the engineers who led the early cellular efforts. "It had the labs, the cafeteria, the library, the shops. We took some comfort from that."

PRESENT:

French telecommunications giant Alcatel-Lucent took over Bell Labs and the Holm­del building in 2006. The company soon decided to shut down the 460-acre site. For the past seven years, the massive property—the building's square footage is roughly equivalent to a flattened-out Empire State Building—has stood vacant.

The blacktop in the expansive parking lot has buckled and is choked with weeds, but structurally, the building remains in good shape. For years, Alcatel-Lucent and the township of Holm­del tried to find buyers. Nobody bit. "We found out no one needs a 2-million-square-foot building anymore," says Holmdel mayor Patrick ­Impreveduto. But finally, last August, New Jersey company Somerset Development bought the property. "It's amazing to see it now as totally empty," says Alex Gorlin, a New York–based architect currently working on the redesign. "It's like a modernist ruin. It's in limbo between its history and the future."

FUTURE:

So what will the building become? Though the particulars are still being debated, the idea is to transform it into a modern-day commercial and civic hub. The new owner envisions a mixed-use space that preserves the exterior integrity but subdivides the interior for—according to the current plan—health-care facilities, the ­Holmdel town library, a ­hotel and conference center, some ­retail shops and restaurants, and other services. "We realized early on that the building had great potential for ­having all this urban experience in suburbia," says Somerset president Ralph Zucker. That said, the space is so large, and the redesign task so involved, that even in an improving economy, filling it may take years. Meanwhile, both the township and the developer hope that the building will have some space devoted to an incubator for startup companies. ­After all, it's got the right historical pedigree—and the right aura. "Why not?" asks Zucker. "This was the place where the tech world was born."

[Photo by Ezra Stoller/Esto]

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