Molten iron and carbon no longer pump money into the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pa., but the chance of meeting lady luck sure does. What was once a booming steel mill that fueled the U.S.’s growing architectural, maritime and wartime needs through the end of the 20th century is now home to the newest gaming venture to open in the Pennsylvania marketplace, the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.
The Bethlehem Steel Mill has been intrinsically tied to its community for more than a century, and when the plant shut down and the facilities fell into disrepair in the 1990s, the city of Bethlehem knew that some Brownfield redevelopment needed to occur. But with nearly 124 acres of land in need of clean up and transformation, it was years before an economic venture large enough to support both the site and the community could be realized.
Fortunately, Pennsylvania approved casino gaming in 2004, and by 2006, Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS) managed to secure one of the state’s 14 gaming licenses and began planning the new face of the former steel mill. After three years of development, the $743 million Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem opened its doors this past May. It now employs nearly a thousand local residents and is bringing much-needed relief to the state’s budget.
Instead of ousting the site’s steel heritage, the design team for the project embraced it, turning the facility into a salute to Bethlehem Steel’s legacy. “We worked with LVS and the city of Bethlehem, as well as the National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH), to understand the history of Bethlehem Steel, its roots in the community and the passion that so many people still have for the area,” explains Ed Wilms, AIA, design principal and vice president of Walsh Bishop, one of the key members of the project’s design team. “We wanted to design a project that was rooted in its context and make connections to the past for residents and visitors alike.”
That passion to retain the building’s legacy proved fruitful. Once the casino opened, local guests familiar with the old steel mill couldn’t discern which parts of the property were old and which parts were new. “We knew we had gotten it right when many of the old steel workers came up to us during the opening and remarked on the historical integrity of the new facility,” says Wilms. “To have the community members so happy and enthused about having the site up and running again, while still maintaining the history and legacy of the steel mill, proved we met our goal.”
While the design team incorporated much of the building’s history into the final product, they also faced the difficult challenge of ensuring the tone was pliable enough for future development of the master plan. To accomplish this, many of the project’s elements have a modern, sleek look while still encompassing the building’s architectural heritage. “The casino itself is highly referential to the old mill, but as you move west through the 200,000 square feet of retail to the hotel, the detailing and design initiatives become decidedly more modern,” Wilms explains. “The luxurious materials have richness but also a deep connection to the area and the plant. Every material, finish and carpet pattern was carefully orchestrated to tell the story of the steel mill in an abstracted and geometric way.”
Even the carpeting on the casino floor is strongly connected to the building’s past. “The carpet has strong design ties to the plant, with abstracted railroad geometries that create major streets through the gaming floor,” Wilms explains. “The railroad was a major transportation system for the old steel, getting both raw materials and finished product to and from the site.”
It might sound nearly impossible to transform an old rundown steel mill into a modern high-end casino, but Wilms explains that wasn’t exactly the case. “The basic elements of the casino lend themselves very well to this kind of environment,” he says. “Using large-span steel to create a large open gaming floor is a basic in almost any casino.”
LVS’s desire to retain the open ceiling of the old steel plant, however, made for some major design difficulties. “Organization of the systems and services that are required for the successful operation of the casino is a Herculean task,” says Wilms. “With an open, exposed ceiling, careful consideration had to be given to everything that happened in the ceiling. Organizing the HVAC ductwork, electrical conduits, specialty lighting and security cameras was especially challenging. It needed to be organized so that it presented a cleanly designed look rather than be haphazard. Also, with natural daylight coming in from the clerestory monitors in the gabled roof, glare on the machines and the security cameras needed to be accounted for.”
Another difficulty was how to retain that exposed structure without retaining the giant warehouse feel. Walsh Bishop managed to design around this challenge by creating specialty lighting that reduces the scale of volume while still allowing visual access to the structure above and the wood deck of the ceiling. “With several different specialty lighting ceiling treatments, we were able to create different neighborhoods that give distinctly different feels to the floor, allowing gamers to choose their environment,” Wilms notes.
“Steeling” from the past, the design team has managed to create a lasting legacy of the city’s ties to the former steel mill while creating a destination that’s poised for growth. In the future, LVS and the design team will unveil additional phases, including an ultra-modern nightclub, a luxury hotel tower and a retail area. Looks like soon enough lady luck will have some competition.
Owner: Las Vegas Sands
Operator: Las Vegas Sands
Robert DeSalvio, President, Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem
Mark Starrett, VP Operations, Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem
Ian Fairbairn, Director of Design, Las Vegas Sands
Architect: RTKL Associates
Keith Campbell, AIA, Principal in Charge
Mike Schwindenhammer, AIA, Design Principal
Patrick Murphy, AIA Project Manager
Larry McKillop, AIA Project Manger
Interior Architect: Walsh Bishop
Mark Longworth AIA, Principal in Charge
Ed Wilms, AIA, Design Principal
Lisa Monson, LEED AP Interior Design Principal
David Serrano, AIA, Design Principal
Ian Scott, LEED AP, Design Principal
Buck Gronberg, Project Coordinator
Ryan Johnson, Project Coordinator
Andrea Hammel Wollak, LEED AP Project Coordinator
Keith O’Brien, VP Entertainment and Hospitality
Contractor: Alvin H. Butz