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Industrial Strength

Can the remnants of Bethlehem Steel be reborn?

Preservation, May/June 2005

“It’s like a cathedral,” I exclaimed as the SUV swung through a weedy doorway and onto an expanse of cracked concrete. My guide smiled. “You’re not the first person to say that.” On either side of us, beneath a soaring roof, stretched long rows of columns dwindling into a V in the distance. We stepped out of the car into air that had the savor of an old English church: dank, dusty, and still.

We were standing inside the No. 2 Machine Shop at what used to be the Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s main plant in Bethlehem, Pa., about 70 miles north of Philadelphia in the Lehigh Valley. Here, the sheer scale of American industry at its preglobalization zenith is overwhelming. During World War II, Bethlehem Steel, then the world’s second-largest steelmaker, employed 30,000 people at this factory—800 or more of them working in No. 2. When engineer John Fritz built it in 1890, No. 2 was the largest industrial building in the world, a shop that could turn out 20 or 30 battleship guns per day to equip the rapidly modernizing U.S. Navy.

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Photograph: PollyKanter / Wikimedia Commons