Bell Labs, Holmdel, NJ
A Community Preserves Past and Future of a Historic Technology Hub
Year Built: 1957-1962, expanded 1965, 1985
The 427-acre Bell Labs campus in Holmdel, NJ, was one of the most important technology incubators of the modern age. Inside the two million square-foot lab complex, five Nobel laureates and over 6,000 employees invented some of the greatest technological innovations of the 20th century, including the transistor, microwave transmission, and cell phone technology. The Bell Labs buildings and surrounding grounds are emblematic of an era of ground breaking scientific, architectural, and landscape design. Prominent architect Eero Saarinen designed the labs in collaboration with Sasaki, Walker and Associates. Saarinen utilized construction materials and techniques at Bell Labs which were cutting-edge at the time. For example, the buildings' mirrored exterior is made of a special material developed to allow 25% of sunlight to pass though while simulatneously repelling 70% of solar heat. The design of the Bell Lab grounds has been compared to a modernistic airplane, and as a whimsical touch, include a water tower shaped like a transistor. The Bell Labs campus has been determined eligible for the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.
In 2006, Bell Labs owner Alcatel/Lucent Technologies announced their intention to move their headquarters and sell the Holmdel property. The combination of a large parcel of attractive, developable land and a major complex of buildings designed for a specific purpose presented challenges for developers and preservationists. The initial purchaser of the lab property, (PREI), proposed demolition of the majority of the Bell Labs building and redevelopment of the historic campus with as office space. Denied high density zoning approvals for the site, PREI pulled out of their purchase agreement. Subsequent developer Somerset Development submitted a plan to develop Bell Labs with residential, commercial, and business uses and expressed intent to preserve the overall historic integrity of the space. While preservationists are hopeful that Somerset Development will be able to preserve Bell Labs' significant buildings and landscape, additional development will be required to make the project financially feasible.
At the first word of its potential demolition, preservationists and former employees Bell Labs were outspoken in their support for preserving the building and landscape. Preservation New Jersey featured the lab on its list of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey in 2007. Public support catalyzed the organization of a charrette, sponsored by Preservation NJ and its partners the National Trust, the American Institute of Architects- NJ, DOCOMOMO, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the Recent Past Preservation Network, and the NJ Conservation Foundation. The 2008 charrette brought together architects, preservationists, and local township officials to discuss preservation strategies and potential new uses for the site. Their work resulted in a 70‑page report outlining suggestions for future modifications and development on the site. The charrette incorporated an oral history component, with Holmdel residents and former employees sharing their memories and thoughts about the lab's significance to the community. Somerset Development was supportive of the charrette, and continues consultations with preservation organizations to utilize the historic lab building and surrounding landscape.
While Somerset Development continues to pursue a preservation-minded development plan, uncertainties remain. A January 2009 report commissioned by Holmdel Township to assess development options for the Bell Labs property again called for the demolition of the lab buildings and redevelopment of the site as golf courses, an equestrian center, a movie studio, and senior housing. The report made no mention of the historic significance of the Bell Labs buildings or landscape. This development has sparked a new wave of protest by advocates for Bell Labs centered on financial and environmental sustainability.