The television series Mad Men has recaptured the allure of 1960s corporate modernism. But the vanguard of midcentury business culture and design was arguably far removed from Madison Avenue. Eero Saarinen's Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J., completed in 1962, exemplified a new generation of sleek office buildings constructed in pastoral, exurban locales.
Today, the glass-enclosed structure stands eerily vacant. Threatened with demolition by a prospective buyer in 2006, its odds of survival now appear more favorable. Somerset Development, which contracted in August to buy the 1.9-million-square-foot building and surrounding 472-acre property, says it intends to preserve the building through mixed-use redevelopment, though it has not revealed any specific plans. (At press time, the sale had not been finalized.)
A unique coalition took shape in 2006, when world-renowned scientists who had worked in the labs for Bell and its corporate successors AT&T and Alcatel-Lucent joined architects and preservationists in trying to save the building. Holmdel community members opposed a proposal by Preferred Real Estate Investments, which made a purchase offer in 2006, to build 300 homes on the parklike landscape designed by Sasaki, Walker and Associates.
To catalyze the adaptive reuse discussion, about 40 architects?including members of AIA New Jersey, Preservation New Jersey, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation?participated in a charrette last April. The results, to be published on preservationnj.org, include proposals for residences, a healthcare center, and a modern high-tech research center. A Somerset spokeswoman says the ideas helped inspire the company to preserve and redevelop Bell Labs.
Crucial to extending the building's life, says Michael Calafati, principal of Trenton, N.J.-based Historic Building Architects and chair of AIA New Jersey's Historic Resources Committee, is bringing natural light and air into the sequestered former lab spaces. Saarinen himself was a master at using new technologies to enhance performance. Among those he specified for Bell Labs was a semireflective glass that reduced heat gain and glare, obviating the need for interior window shades.