It was bad enough, locals say, when the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces shut down. The whole plant became silent that day -- Nov. 18, 1995 -- to hear a lone steelworker whistle "Amazing Grace" as the furnaces' ever-constant blue flame died out.
Now, the five towering furnaces themselves are in danger of demolition unless the National Park Service saves the local skyline by designating them historic landmarks.
Bethlehem Steel Corp. -- or, simply, "Steel" to the surrounding city of 69,000 -- stopped all work at its headquarters plant in 1998. It was offered a $1.5 billion buyout on Monday by the International Steel Group (ISG) to bring the industrial giant out of the bankruptcy protection it filed for in 2001.
Yet Bethlehem remains, in its heritage and identity, a steel town. That's in large part because of its five totems, the rusting blast furnaces that loom 17 stories high and that experts say are among the architectural wonders of the nation's industrial era.
"They have a very important place in the nation's architectural history -- it's a record of what the design was like in the era in which those blast furnaces were important," says Lynn Beedle, professor emeritus of architecture at nearby Lehigh University, and the director of the International Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
But the cost of rehabilitating the blast furnaces is too high for Bethlehem Steel. The company, which is trying to unload the plant property, estimates that it would cost $1.25 million to repair, clean and paint each furnace, on top of additional future costs to maintain the structures.
The decision whether to save or scrap the blast furnaces comes as Bethlehem Steel is pushing to revitalize the deserted plant about 50 miles north of Philadelphia as a sprawling development park -- called Bethlehem Works -- that will include retail shops, movie theaters, office space, a hockey rink and the future Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of Industrial History.
ISG's offer would have no impact on either the fate of the furnaces or the plans for Bethlehem Works.
The Delaware Valley Real Estate Investment Fund, which has exclusive rights to buy the bulk of the property from Bethlehem Steel, has balked at paying for the entire cost of restoration. As a compromise, Bethlehem Steel is pushing Delaware Valley to restore at least two of the five towers -- and, as a last resort, demolish the other three.
Enterprise Real Estate Services President Robert F. Barron, working for Bethlehem Steel, sounds rueful when he talks about the furnaces.
"These are major landmarks that have been part of the city for years, that we're hoping to retain," Barron says. "We'll work to preserve some, if not all, of them. But it's not a small expense."
Tearing down even one of the five furnaces is not an option to Stephen G. Donches, a third-generation former Bethlehem Steel employee who heads the nonprofit group that is bringing the industrial history museum to the former plant's footprint. Donches grew up in the shadow of the blast furnaces, which he envisions as the perfect backdrop -- and tourist attraction -- for the entire site.
"I think people see more than the structure," Donches says. "When they look at the blast furnaces, they see the history of their families. They see three generations of people working here. They see a facility that helped build America -- literally."
The hulking, black, twisted mass of metal pipes and cauldrons, towering over the landscape and dominating the city's skyline, marks the spot where at least 2,000 workers labored during Bethlehem Steel's peak in the 1950s.
Unsuccessful in earlier deals for funding, Donches recently appealed to the National Park Service to have the furnaces, which date to the first decades of the 20th century, and several 19th-century buildings on the site designated as national historical landmarks. If the site wins the designation, Donches anticipates, the funding is sure to follow.
With their historical and architectural significance, the furnaces are sure to qualify for federal aid, says Jim Pepper, assistant regional director of the Park Service's office in Philadelphia.
"It's a spectacular resource there," Pepper says, "and I'd hope they'll be successful in finding resources to protect it."
Even so, the money is far from in hand. Last year, the National Center for Cultural Resources, which handles all historic preservation funding for the Park Service, awarded about $15 million to 79 of the 400 projects that applied for aid. "It's a very competitive process," says Rebecca Shiffer of the cultural resources center.
And time is running out to decide the furnaces' fate.
With some of the Bethlehem Works attractions slated to open in August 2003, planners have only six to nine months to resolve the furnace issue, Donches says.
"This is an important part of our lives," he says. "We can't properly tell the story of what happened then if we don't preserve what we have now. It is our story, but it's also a national story."