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A revolutionary overhaul

A piece of Bethlehem’s industrial history transforms into a foundry of modern technology

At the very top of South Mountain, a renaissance of sorts is taking place. The unpretentiously named Building C, part of a 1960s complex that was Bethlehem Steel’s outpost for research before it became Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus in the 1980s, is being reborn as a cutting-edge center for 21st century innovation and education.

The colossal, midcentury structure had been neglected since Bethlehem Steel folded. Lehigh acquired it in 2013 when Daniel Lopresti, who directs Lehigh’s Data X initiative and is professor and chair of computer science and engineering, was one of the first to tour the dilapidated hulk.

“There were about half a dozen of us, faculty and administrators,” recalls Lopresti. “The building was in serious disrepair—there were leaks in the roof and animals had gotten in. We started to scratch our heads and wonder how we could use it.”

Inspired by floor spaces the size of playing fields, three enormous bays and soaring 60-foot ceilings, Lopresti’s imagination kicked into high gear. “I remember thinking that it looked like a Google or Facebook complex, with bones that any urban tech startup would envy—and this was when the building was still abandoned,” he says. “We could foresee a hackathon taking place, or research into coordinated swarms of robots, for example. The entire team of faculty and staff involved in the renovation project has been struck by the nature and spirit of the space—it is utterly perfect for thinking big.”

Building C is currently in the process of a revolutionary overhaul, one that Lopresti calls a respectful repurposing. The project is preserving the industrial history and feel of the structure while creating a contemporary ‘makerspace’ for Lehigh researchers and students. When complete, the facility will act as a hub of research and education for interdisciplinary Lehigh teams and projects that leverage data science and analytics.

Lehigh, working with EYP Architecture & Engineering, the firm that designed the award-winning Urban Outfitter headquarters in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, has envisioned a facility that will capture the best features of leading tech firms, bringing a sense of SoMa to South Mountain. The design also infuses the interior spaces with the state-of-the-art tools and informal meeting spots that help give rise to creativity and collaboration, keys to survival and success in the modern technology environment.

The building will feature openness and broad sight lines to maintain the expansive feel of the original spaces. Large, glass-walled rooms dubbed “mixing boxes” will line one end of the interior, separating the work spaces from the office and administrative areas in the crescent-shaped approach that links the spoke-like wings of the building. The mixing boxes can be used for meetings, seminars or informal gatherings, and overlook the vast bays. Classrooms will be fitted for active learning, with the idea that students will cover course material prior to scheduled classes so that class time can be devoted to hands-on, experiential projects.

Lehigh has also invested in a major upgrade of the fiber optic network connecting Mountaintop with the lower campus. The building will have a telepresence room, the next generation in videoconferencing.