Bell Laboratories wasn’t just a single building. Rather, it was nationwide constellation of labs responsible for global marvels of scientific discovery and seven Nobel prizes. The mantle began to disintegrate with the closing of the famous Manhattan office, but now Bell Laboratories’ Holmdel facility in suburban New Jersey has closed–and the community is left to wonder what to do with the cavernous monolith where wonders once sparked into life.
Designed by famed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, the architect responsible for the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the Holmdel building is a quarter-mile long of sheer mirror outside and 1.9 million square feet of atrial space inside. Even before the Saarinen building was constructed between 1959-62, the site’s claim to fame was Bell Laboratories employee Karl Guthe Jansky’s inventing radio astronomy there in 1933. At its peak, the Saarinen building held 6,000 employees and claims the location for the laser cooling work that earned Bell researcher Steven Chu a Nobel Prize. Research at the facility led to fax technology and cell phones.
Bell began moving out in 2007, but thanks to a New Urbanist developer, the Holmdel building will likely be split into a mixed-use urban center with 237 of its 472 acres lopped off for residential development.
The Saarinen building was one of 11 Bell Laboratories facilities in New Jersey, and six years after the huge mirrored campus was first expanded in 1966, the New Jersey locations boasted 12,000 of Bell Laboratories’ 17,000 scientists and engineers across the nation. Responsible for the first long-distance television transmission, invention of the transistor and photovoltaic cell, and first successful operation of a gas laser, Bell Laboratories reads like the Google of its day. Half of its employees were in the top 5% of their graduating class and Bell paid full rides for its Bachelor degree hires to go back to school, as they only employed Master’s degree holders.
While aerial views depict the Saarinen building as a tight rectangle between fanned-out splays of car parking, the inside is quite cavernous, with the large atrium areas between walls of cubicles spanned by bridges at all floors. The space made some lament the decreased chance that serendipitous run-ins would spark creative moments, while others painted the modernist design as cold and inflexible. Still, the space was eminently productive and almost a town unto itself, with its own postal service, dry cleaner, and cafeteria.
Ralph Zucker, the New Urbanist president of Somerset Development, has been working to keep the Saarinen building intact since 2007 and convince local businesses that multi-use commerce is the way to go. To raise part of the $100 million needed for renovations, Zucker sold 237 acres to residential developer Toll Brothers, which plans to sell homes around the Saarinen building for $1 million apiece.