BETHLEHEM, Pa. - A sprawling 130-year-old steel plant that armored hundreds of U.S. warships and provided the raw material for the Golden Gate Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and many other famous landmarks will become a hive of activity over the next few days as workers start preparing some of its buildings for demolition.
More than a decade after its towering blast furnaces went cold, Bethlehem Steel's flagship plant is being transformed into a $600 million casino complex run by Las Vegas Sands Corp., owner of the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.
Contractor Brandenburg Industrial Service Co. will take down 11 buildings representing about 460,000 square feet, including a locomotive repair shop and steel foundry.
Though historians and former steelworkers lament the loss of a part of Bethlehem Steel's history, Sands said it will save more than 20 buildings - including the 1,500-foot-long No. 2 Machine Shop, once the world's largest - and incorporate many of them into a resort featuring a hotel, restaurants, shops, entertainment venues and the slots casino.
Also staying put are the iconic, 20-story blast furnaces that have helped define Bethlehem's skyline for 100 years. Sands will install architectural lighting to spotlight them.
"These buildings are really important and we have to preserve that story," said Robert DeSalvio, president of Sands Bethworks Gaming L.L.C., a subsidiary of Las Vegas Sands. "The community wanted to make sure that the history of what was done here was not forgotten and we're going to honor that commitment."
Actual demolition won't start until early June. Workers must first clean up the site and remove important artifacts - including a 60-foot-long, 187,000-pound gun from the USS Mississippi, a battleship that saw action during World War II.
A fire truck, a diesel locomotive, and the last piece of armor plate made in the United States also will be removed and stored for future display.
"We're going to collect all of that and make sure it is safely housed before any of those old buildings come down," DeSalvio said.
Part of the cost of demolition will be offset by the salvage value of about 7,000 tons of steel.
Historian Lance Metz, an expert on Bethlehem Steel, said the most historically significant building coming down is the weldment complex, which shaped armor plate for scores of American battleships. But an 1885 press and the pumping engine that operated it will be left behind as monuments. Eventually, a parking lot will surround them.
"I'm not going to stand in front of the bulldozers because without the casino, we'd have nothing saved," Metz said. "Even with the demolitions, there will be more important historical buildings at the Bethlehem plant than at any other plant in America."
Jerry Werkheiser, who worked at Bethlehem Steel for 20 years and has led tours of the dormant plant, said it would be disconcerting to lose part of the flagship plant of the nation's former No. 2 steelmaker.
"Once those buildings are gone, they'll be a figment of someone's imagination," he said. "All you can do is try to describe in words what one went through with the heat, the smoke, the odor. It's very, very tough when you don't have something there physically to point out."