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Razing Awareness

Memorializing the lost Bethlehem Steel administration building at the Steel Plant Museum

Prominent among the display items in the current Steel Plant Museum exhibit is a molded sheet-copper lion’s head, about three feet across, richly patinaed after the better part of a century of exposure to the corrosive air at the epicenter of the Lackawanna iron and steel industry in its heyday. It was one of the cornice décor items of the recently demolished Bethlehem Steel Corporation administration building—originally Lackawanna Steel Company administration building—constructed around the year 1900.

The lion’s head appears again in a painting by Margaret J. Raab that shows the building floating on a cloud-like bank of rococo swirls and curlicues, also representing original cornice ornamentation.

You’d expect to see this sort of architecture and décor on a Paris opera house. Or along the main concourse of a world’s fair and expo of the era. But in Lackawanna? Local preservationists made the case to save the building to save our history. What history, more specifically? The history of the clash and co-existence of unbridled industrialism and an aesthetic aspiration that gorged itself to surfeit on the cultural heritage of the Classical period and the Renaissance, that couldn’t get enough of art and beauty, much as the industrialists in their workaday world couldn’t get enough of money. It happened here, in Western New York, in Lackawanna, as much as anywhere in the world. The marriage of Apollo and Vulcan.

Another building remnant is a huge, circular, molded-copper, wreath of leaves and berries dormer window frame, somewhat the worse for wear from the demolition. Also—in pristine condition—one of the original large bronze label plaques that graced the front of the structure, one on either side of the main entrance, announcing “Lackawanna Building” in handsome Roman-style lettering (the “u” written as a “v”).

It’s an exhibit in an elegiac mode. Included is a 1994 aerial photo by Patricia Laymon Bazelon, a majestic panorama view of the building and ambient thick atmosphere, plumes of smoke and steam rising from coke-making operations in the background, under ominous skies. The main event steel-making operations were discontinued a decade earlier.

And by Stephen M. Koenig, from around 2005, building interior views showing peeling paint and a once-elegant staircase and balustrade railing, now, then, half-hidden under dust and detritus.

And more recently by Lesley Horowitz, a photographer who specializes in views of abandoned industrial facilities that “stand as untended graveyards of derailed prosperity…that resonate with the promise of failed modernism…,” two photos of demolition ruins, called Requiem 1 and Requiem 2.

And by Gerry Maira, views of abandoned testing labs in a shambles condition. More peeling paint and fallen plaster. And by Paul Borden, a frontal view of the building just prior to demolition, including artifacts of the preservationist vigil—a pup tent, a folding chair.

Other paintings—besides Margaret J. Raab’s—are by Vincent Alejandro, a work called Lost Beauty, and Mary Ellen Bossert, a work called Steel Beaux/Still Beauty. “Oh, the beautiful decay…,” Bossert says in a verbal comment.

Also included is a video on the building history, along with footage of the vigil and preservationist pleas to deaf ears in the Lackawanna city administration.

The building is gone—alas—but could some good still come of the preservationist interest in aesthetics and amenities in this historically almost exclusively industrial zone?

Not technically part of the exhibit but on file at the Steel Plant Museum and available for perusal is a written report—with a view to the impending demolition threat to the building—on historical and other data on the building and environs, by Darren Cotton of the UB Department of Urban Planning/Urban Design. One of the report recommendations—this presumably whether the building was ultimately saved or lost—is for green infrastructure and a bike path around the present take-your-life-in-your-hands Route 5 bend around the steel production facility remains.

The exhibit is called Razing Awareness. It was designed by Stephen R. Bukowski as his master’s degree project in Museum Studies at Buffalo State College, and curated by Spencer Morgan of the Steel Plant Museum. It continues through May 2.

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