Friday, June 17, 2011

Industrial Chic

A wee bit exhausted over here. I've been getting paid to play in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley all week, where I got to nerd out to industrial architecture and frolic amidst the sort of community character that other communities spend millions trying to create. Community character is like style or sexiness or grace ... you just have it or you don't. I prefer hanging out in communities that have it. My apologies to suburban development codes that try in vain to create a sense of place by reducing setbacks and adding facade treatments onto their strip malls.

(Ummm... am I writing about planning on my frivolous blog? Too tired to stop now... I'm going with it.)

One of my pet professional interests is adaptive reuse, which at its essence means reusing an existing structure for a new purpose. The benefits of doing so are that we don't tear down and build anew, usually with new codes that make the sort of yummy development we used to have illegal; that we can honor the character and legacy of older structures, which is really a way to honor ourselves and our communities; and that by introducing new activities in older places, we have an opportunity to achieve a greater good and produce a new sort of energy, whether that be via affordable housing or entertainment activities. 

I get pretty worked up about this sort of thing. Ask T what it's like to take the train from DC to CT with me, and he'll probably tell you how nerdy I get about the old factories that back up to the river and the tracks, how my mind reels with the possibilities. (More weird Maggie trivia: I never drink soda, but every time I ride Amtrak I have an insatiable urge for Pepsi.) This is more than a Northeast bias, by the way. A family joke regularly references my future bestseller: The Historic Downtowns of Eastern North Carolina. And you can imagine how excited I was living in New Mexico, surrounded by structures that pre-date anything on the East Coast by nearly a thousand years.

Anyway, this is a long aside to say that I don't have fun web finds for you today, mostly because I haven't had time to play online and find them. Instead, I bring you pretty pictures of the sort of thing I was appreciating all week. An educational Friday I'm in Love, perhaps. I hope some of you will find this interesting.

Bethlehem Steel

The former Bethlehem Steel plant is a massive 1600-acre complex in Bethlehem, PA. Take a minute and imagine how enormous that is. What's interesting about the site to me is that it's in progress. It's too big to be master-planned or taken on by a single buyer, so a variety of activities are happening there, some private, and some public.

A new Sands Casino featuring three (?!) Emeril restaurants is on site with an attached hotel, its entrance sign a reuse of one of Bethlehem Steel's original cranes. I'll admit, I'm not a casino person. I wish the insides of all those places didn't look largely the same due to the whirling lights and incessant beeps of slot machines. However, through the madness you can still appreciate the intent of the design, with angles, ducts, and beams that pay homage to the original plant. (The exterior facade of the hotel is another story... not a fan of that.) The heart of the campus' revitalization is ArtsQuest, a large arts and cultural center at the Stacks. In addition to the new building, a new outdoor pavilion for concerts and events is being constructed in front of the stacks, which are lit up at night.

There's no way to overestimate the enormity of these original structures. The building called the No. 2 Shop was the largest industrial building in the world when it was constructed in 1890. The facades and windows all exhibit the sort of purpose that new structures so often fall short in achieving. To me these sorts of purpose-driven details are beautiful.

Another facet of this project that I adore is that industrial work is still being done on the site, which grounds the entire campus in a way that isn't possible when we're only remembering and not doing (in other words: Disneyfication alert). Steel work for the Navy is still in production at one end of the campus; you can see examples of what they produce sitting outside the building, in perfect harmony with the steel-based art that dots the entire city. 

I didn't have time to do a full tour of these structures on foot this week. My next trip out (and it appears I have a couple coming up) will absolutely involve an official tour. As well as packing my camera.

Easton Silk Mill

The old silk mill in Easton is probably a better example of manageable reuse projects for other cities, simply because it's more relatable in size. Most old cities still have buildings like this one, in various states of use or disrepair, of course. While this was originally a mill, buildings similar to this one are everywhere and not necessarily industrial in purpose.

The plan for the Silk Mill includes apartments, retail, a theater, and more... just like nearly every new mixed-use development that's underway nationwide. The value of using an old building like this with meaning to the city is what appeals here... and what has me perennially dreaming about the possibilities of new life in old places. 


That's it's for my placemaking field trip show and tell. I'm hoping to wrap up work early today and get some much-needed rest in this 1906 house of ours... which is suddenly feeling not very old at all. Have a happy weekend, everyone.


  1. How awesome! I love the idea and would find these places infinitely more interesting to visit over say a cookie cutter new development.

  2. Love this! I adore the rust belt renaissance that is happening right now. We have a really neat adaptive re-use project here in San Antonio. It's an old brewery that was abandoned for like 25 or 30 years that they have turned into a work/live/play concept. It's home to our CIA campus, farmers markets, a yoga studio and lots of restaurants. It was in walking distance of my old house, and I spent many a Saturday afternoon there.

  3. Excellent post. My degree is in Urban Planning and Historic Pres. Woowoo! I will buy your book about NC. Duh.

  4. I love this! I was an architecture major in college (I just graduated- putting that in past tense was WEIRD!) and adaptive-reuse was always one of my favorite things to learn about. Last fall one of my classes spent a lot of time looking at adaptive-reuse projects in Richmond. I think they're so cool!

  5. Nick's aunt and uncle live in Bethlehem, and we've often said that we would move there in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself. Almost every time we visit, we ride our bikes along the Lehigh River that overlooks some of the industrial architecture you're referring to in this post. (Oh, and the bike ride typically ends at a great little brewery.) Also, Bethlehem hosts an AMAZING music festival each August ( You and T would totally love it.

  6. Yes. I love reused industrial structures. I didn't like living in Macungie, near Allentown, but that was 30 years ago, and communities do grow and develop:).

  7. Great post - interesting to hear about these developments and the challenges around them - and to learn about types of use other than fancy condos. On my block in Somerville, MA there were 2 churches and old police headquarters/jail that were converted to condos and they were gorgeous!


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