History's Headlines: Martin Tower to come a tumblin' down

 

The decision was final. Martin Tower's doom, announced by Bethlehem officialdom, was set for late spring or early summer. It would, they said, be carefully imploded so as to cause as little fuss as possible. Over 20-odd stories of steel, what was once the tallest building in the Lehigh Valley, would be scrap and Allentown's Art Deco PPL skyscraper from 1928 would once more take the title it had lost to its 12-foot taller rival.

All of this would have been unthinkable on August 25, 1969, a bright summer morning, when the executives of Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel company in the world, gathered with a group of political leaders to break ground for the new office building. First with the shovel was Edmund F. Martin, Bethlehem's chairman and chief executive officer. He had been with the company for years. Martin could remember the tough Depression days of 1930s, and the violent strike of the early 1940s to keep out the union. Even years later he was able to tell a newspaper reporter how he saw it, not happy but long ago resigned to the result.

Martin had participated as the company became the great "arsenal of democracy" leading the Allies to victory in World War II. The phrase was President Franklin Roosevelt's, not a popular fellow in the executive suite of "the Steel." But the war gave them the mission and they had followed it splendidly and profitably. "Always More Production," his mentor Gene Grace had said. And eventually following in his footsteps, it was Martin's mantra as well. Skyscrapers and bridges of Bethlehem Steel transformed post-war America's cities. Now this new, modern office building would bear his name.

At Martin's shoulder as he lifted that first sod was Stewart S. Cort. Cort was Bethlehem's president and a year later would step into Martin's shoes as its chairman. Cort, whose father had been a company steelmaking operations head, was a Harvard Business School graduate who showed his ability in a variety of ways, not the least of which was being an excellent golfer at the company's Saucon Valley Country Club, following the pattern set long ago by Grace in the days when Charles "Charlie" Schwab's press agents had christened them "the Boys of Bethlehem." And now, as Cort turned his shovel, the ultimate brass ring at Bethlehem Steel was about to be his. He would depart that job retiring at age 63 from a still apparently prosperous Bethlehem Steel in 1974. His monument is a huge ore carrying ship, the first 1,000 footer on the Great Lakes, that bears his name. Launched in 1973, it is still in operation today.

Minutes after the groundbreaking a yellow bulldozer near them bit into the ground. As it went to work Martin recalled for those present, among them Pennsylvania State Senator John "Johnny" Van Sant and Bethlehem Mayor Gordon V. Payrow, how Martin Tower came to be built where it was:

"The building is, in a sense, our pledge in the community that Bethlehem Steel will do its part to encourage strong community spirit. It is evidence that we are here to stay. When you think about undertaking a project as big as this one we are starting today, you have to think about the future as well as the present. Forty years ago when a similar question was considered, there was a large group in the company management favoring a move to New York. Thank goodness they were a minority! This time no one suggested we move to another city. The only question was where to put the new building in Bethlehem. The new office building is an important part of our efforts to streamline and modernize our facilities so that we can prosper in the highly competitive fast-paced business world."

Then it was Payrow's turn to speak:

"Confidence in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley is being built at this corner today. What will come here could have happened at Broadway and 42nd streets or any avenue in the U.S.A. Instead one of the nation's top industrial companies which adopted Bethlehem as its pioneer home, has chosen Bethlehem as the place it wants to be. In effect the Martin Tower will be a symbol of the steel backbone that has made this country strong."

With that Martin, Cort, Van Sant, Payrow and Bethlehem Steel executive Vice President Ivor D. Sims gathered around a scale model of Martin Tower created by the architects Haines Lundberg Waehler. The firm's roots went back to 1885, designing business buildings in New York. As Bethlehem Steel cameramen took pictures for the company newsletter, Cort pressed his finger on the top floor of the building's model. The next day, under the headline "Bethlehem's Beacon," the Morning Call's editorial page hailed it "as a pledge to the community…The new Martin Tower will be another distinctive witness to that conviction. It is also a reminder that Bethlehem Steel is Bethlehem's leading citizen responsible for paying almost a third of the local real estate taxes."

Details of the new building appeared a year before in the July 1968 newsletter. The one issued for October 1969 provided more. It would be 23 stories, rising 320 feet above the ground and containing over 600,000 square feet of office space. The building would be cross shaped with four wings around a central core. Martin Tower would be clad in porcelain steel panels that would be colored in charcoal gray and beige. The most distinctive public area would be the two-story high lobby. The steelwork was to be fabricated at the Bethlehem and Leetsdale, PA works and erected by men of the Eastern Erection Division. All the company's departments would be located there except sales. Completion date was set for fall 1971.

Construction began rapidly. Some sources claim that all work later slowed to a crawl due to "insufficient funds." Local Bethlehem Steel historian Ann Bartholomew, who with her co-author Donald Stuart Young has recently re-issued their 2010 book "Bethlehem Steel: A Photographic History," finds it possible but highly unlikely. "Bethlehem Steel did suffer a bad year, for them, in 1970, but I can't see insufficient funds being a major reason. A lot of the supplies and interior work was done in the rear of the building and delivered there at that time and may be why people thought nothing was happening," she says. Bartholomew's husband, iron and steel historian Craig Bartholomew, was a long-time senior buyer in Bethlehem Steel's purchasing department who ordered much of the materials and furniture for the building. He believes any delay may have had to do in part with the hiring of New York decorators who insisted that when it came to executive's offices money was no object.

Ornate furniture, door knobs embossed with the company's logo and handwoven carpet were the norm. When the executive boardroom's carpet was damaged coming up the elevator shaft, weavers were brought to Bethlehem from New York to fix it. "Only the best decorators and best furniture would do," Craig Bartholomew told the Morning Call for its history of the company, "Forging America: The Story of Bethlehem Steel. "After all, this was Bethlehem Steel." Craig Bartholomew notes there was no grand opening for Martin Tower. Starting in late August 1972 and on every weekend into December, except on Labor Day and Thanksgiving Day holidays, the company moved one or two departments in. "The move had to go smoothly," noted the December 1972 issue of the company's newsletter, "because headquarters work could not stop simply because of a big move," it said. "When the work day ended at Friday at 5pm, business as usual had to begin the following Monday. And it did thanks to a score of men in gray from the Purchasing Department."

The article focused on the move of one employee, Ruth Thompson. On September 22, Thompson, administrative assistant to H.H. Howard, assistant to the vice president for shipbuilding was moved to Martin Tower. The article followed Thompson with photographs that showed her packing, moving and arriving safe and sound at her new office with her prize philodendron unscathed. Ann Bartholomew recalls that in the building's early days a doorman was required to hold open the lobby door in the high winds that sometimes swept the corner of 8th and Easton.

That December, as the last employees of Bethlehem Steel were moving into Martin Tower, a record crowd of 3,000 gathered in September like temperatures at Bethlehem's Civic Plaza to take part in the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony. As Freedom High School band, under the direction of future Allentown Band Director Ron Demkee, struck up a selection of Christmas music, a youngster, identified only as a young Boy Scout from Troop 4, snapped a switch and the Christmas's City's tree was aglow. That night Martin Tower's future seemed as bright as that Christmas tree. Anyone who predicted then that it would outlive the Bethlehem Steel Corporation that built it would have been looked on as crazy.

But mini mills and foreign steel (in 1975 Japan surpassed America in steel production) were emptying out Martin Tower offices before the decade was out. The 1980s hit the company at all levels, shedding workers as it once shed profits. In 1995 Bethlehem Steel was no longer making steel in Bethlehem. Many attempts to save Martin Tower, including placing it on the National Register of Historic Places have been tried and appear to finally have come to an end. In a few months the proud tower of Bethlehem Steel- like the company that built it- will be no more.