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PNJ Endangered “Summit” an eye-opener for Bell Labs advocates

April 13, 2010

by Jim McCorkel, Holmdel

Bell Labs, credit: AT&T Archives

The recent “Summit” meeting of advocates for five significant and endangered historic sites in New Jersey really opened the eyes of those of us attending from Holmdel.  Of the 5 sites reviewed at the summit, Holmdel’s Bell Labs:

  • has probably received the least support from citizens of the local community (there is no local organization dedicated to saving the site; no locally sponsored website presenting the history of scientific discoveries at the site, or pointing out the international significance of Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs in the history of the modern architecture movement, or celebrating the brilliant collaboration of Sasaki Walker on the landscape architecture covering much of the 471 acres)
  • has certainly received the most out-of-town support for saving the landscape architecture and Bell Labs building–in the form of the charrette that involved professionals from many East Coast states and the publication of the beautifully designed charrette report (The Bell Labs Charrette:  A Sustainable Future, available on the American Institute of Architects’ New Jersey Chapter website) and nominations by Preservation New Jersey to the “Eleven Most Endangered” list of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and our invitation to participate in the PNJ “summit” meeting
  • has arguably the greatest historical significance from the standpoint of the history of landscape architecture, the modern architecture movement, and the history of scientific and technological inventions
  • requires by far the largest financial investment to modify the Bell Labs building in ways that will make it sustainable financially for investors, and as a tax ratable for the community.

But if the Holmdel Bell Labs site faces significant challenges, it also would appear to be blessed with unique assets that enhance the likelihood of a positive outcome:

  • Holmdel Township is in serious negotiations over zoning changes and a proposal for sustainable development of the site with a contract purchaser who would appear to have both the understanding of the historical significance of the site and significant financial backing
  • the preservation of the site has been strongly supported in both editorials and extensive news coverage of the issues in the local and regional press
  • the “Pioneers” — the alumni association of Bell Labs employees and their spouses — have been outstanding in their willingness to support the preservation of the site, and in their contributions to a historical archive of memories of working in the Saarinen-designed building that has been organized by the Yale University School of Architecture
  • an alert group of Holmdel citizen activists in the Citizens for Informed Land Use organization who took the lead in a successful campaign to block a previous contract purchaser of the site from covering the landscape with luxury homes, and both hosted the Bell Labs Charrette and helped to raise the funds raised to meet Charrette expenses, and, not least
  • a Holmdel Township fiscal crisis that is placing enormous pressure on the town’s elected officials to come to an agreement with the contract purchaser, Somerset Development, to increase the site as a generator of significant business property tax revenues to offset forces that are driving both the town and its school system to either cut services drastically or raise already sky high residential property taxes.

The timing of the “summit” was perfect for Holmdel.  The press release at the end of the summit generate two well-written articles in the local press, and as a consequence local citizens are newly asking what more can they do to promote a wider understanding of the stakes involved in saving Holmdel’s Bell Labs.


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