Mill site begins changeover, from steel to slot machines
Pieces of history will be preserved
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- More than a decade after its towering blast furnaces went cold,
The sprawling plant that armored hundreds of US warships and provided the raw material for the Golden Gate Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and many other famous landmarks will become a hive of activity over the next few days as workers start preparing some of its century-old buildings for demolition.
In their place will rise a $600 million casino complex run by Las Vegas Sands Corp., owner of the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.
Jerry Werkheiser, who worked at Bethlehem Steel for 20 years and has led tours of the dormant plant, said it will be disconcerting to lose part of the flagship plant of the nation's former No. 2 steelmaker.
"Once those buildings are gone, they'll be a figment of someone's imagination," he said. "All you can do is try to describe in words what one went through with the heat, the smoke, the odor."
Actual demolition won't start until early June. First, workers must clean up the site and remove important artifacts -- including a 60-foot-long, 187,000-pound gun from the USS Mississippi, a battleship that saw action during World War II.
A fire truck, a diesel locomotive, and the last piece of armor plate made in the United States also will be removed and stored for future display.
"We're going to collect all of that and make sure it is safely housed before any of those old buildings come down," said Robert DeSalvio, president of Sands Bethworks Gaming LLC, a subsidiary of Las Vegas Sands.
Contractor Brandenburg Industrial Service Co. will take down 11 buildings representing about 460,000 square feet, including a locomotive repair shop and steel foundry.
Part of the cost of demolition will be offset by the salvage value of some 7,000 tons of steel.
Though historians lament the loss of a part of Bethlehem Steel's history, Sands plans to save more than 20 buildings -- including the 1,500-foot-long No. 2 Machine Shop, once the world's largest -- and incorporate many of them into its plan for a destination resort featuring a hotel, restaurants, shops, entertainment venues, and a slots casino.
Also staying put are the iconic, 20-story blast furnaces that have helped define Bethlehem's skyline for 100 years. Sands will install architectural lighting to spotlight them.
"These buildings are really important and we have to preserve that story," DeSalvio said. "The community wanted to make sure that the history of what was done here was not forgotten and we're going to honor that commitment."
Historian Lance Metz, an expert on Bethlehem Steel, said the most historically significant building coming down is the weldment complex, which shaped armor plate for scores of American battleships.
But an 1885 press and the pumping engine that operated it will be saved -- left behind as monuments.
Eventually, a parking lot will surround them.
"I'm not going to stand in front of the bulldozers, because without the casino, we'd have nothing saved," Metz said.
"Even with the demolitions, there will be more important historical buildings at the Bethlehem plant than at any other plant in America."
Mayor John Callahan said the casino complex will help resurrect the long-dormant Bethlehem Steel property, regarded as the nation's largest brownfield.
"It will be one of the most unique economic development projects in the country, and people will come far and wide to see it," he said. "It will be a national model for the redevelopment of an industrial site."
Sands plans to open a casino with 3,000 slot machines by the end of 2008, a 300-room hotel, and 50,000-square-foot convention center three months after that, and a casino addition with another 2,000 slot machines in summer 2009.