The Birthplace of the Cellphone Is Being Turned Into a Mall

Think Apple’s forthcoming Cupertino headquarters is the first corporate space ship to touch down in America? Not so: In 1962 the legendary R&D hub, Bell Labs, opened a glittering, 500-acre headquarters in semi-rural New Jersey. Today, it's the focus of an ambitious reuse scheme that could turn it into a commercial hub, complete with a spa and a hotel.

Officially named the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex, this two million square foot cube of mirrored glass was home to a company that invented everything from the laser to C++, and raked in Nobel Prizes like candy. It was designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who was already world famous for buildings like Dulles Airport and the St. Louis Arch. Bell Labs was his last building—it opened the year after he died, in fact.

Ironically, though, Holmdel isn’t all that well known. Try driving up to it (as I have), and you’ll get turned away by security guards before you can even see the building. The complex is surrounded by a thick padding of arcing streets and parking lots that form a perfect elliptical buffer for the massive, cube-like building.

The Birthplace of the Cellphone Is Being Turned Into a Mall

The padding makes sense—this building once housed some of the most important research of the 20th century. In fact, the work began before it was even built—it was here that the very first radio waves were received from space in the 1930s.

When the building opened in 1962, it housed around 6,000 engineers organized around four open-plan offices, each with its own arcade. Inside, Bell Labs' teams were doing the work that gave us things like the transistor, fiber optics, and the earliest wireless networks. Many historians even call Holmdel "the birthplace of the cellphone;" it was home to the invention of the first develop the first cellular wireless voice transmission system, and also produced the first widely-used cellphone. "It's effectively the birthplace of global wireless movement, possibly the most crucial communications development of the 20th century," wrote Engaget's Ryan Block in 2011.

The Birthplace of the Cellphone Is Being Turned Into a Mall

The Birthplace of the Cellphone Is Being Turned Into a Mall

Top image by Aaron Forrest. Bottom by s o d a p o p.

So it’s an important place—both in terms of tech history and design. Yet Bell Labs eventually became Lucent Technology in the 1990s, it became Lucent, which was acquired by Alcatel, and finally, the company dwindled. The great era of physics research was over—and the age of computing had long since begun. Alcatel-Lucent sold the once-grand building to a real estate company in 2006—and it’s been “endangered” ever since, slipping into decay and abandonment.

The Birthplace of the Cellphone Is Being Turned Into a Mall

Image by recluse26.

Is there a plan to save it? Kind of. Architectural Record reports that a developer called Somerset has purchased the property—and plans to turn it into a $100 million commercial hub filled such amenities as shops, restaurants, a hotel, an "upscale spa," and even a ambulatory surgical center. What will draw people to a massive cube in suburban New Jersey? It’s not entirely clear yet—though for starters, Somerset is selling half the site to Toll Brothers, the McMansion developer, to build new homes.

The Birthplace of the Cellphone Is Being Turned Into a Mall

Whether or not they succeed in turning a two million square foot office into what one developer calls “a virtual city,” this is an increasingly common scenario, since there are hundreds of vacant office parks sprinkled across the country. Some are turned into community centers, others, libraries. Some are razed.

When companies like AT&T (and Apple, for that matter) are at their strongest, it’s easy for community boards and locals to be swept up in the optimism of a brand-new, high-profile corporate campus. But things change. Technology evolves. And decades later, buildings are shuttered. What happens then depends on how well the design suits other purposes. In the case of Holmdel, only time will tell.

Lead image by MBisanz.