Mark Goldberg

The Canadian Telecom Summit

Fox Group Dispatch

Labs for sale

I’m trying to imagine the listing in the real estate section of the New York Times for the landmark Bell Labs building in Holmdel NJ. 2M sq ft, former home to Nobel laureates. Buy a piece of American history. Architectural landmark.

I remember my first time arriving at the facility. In 1986, the building was already a quarter century old, but it looked like new. One of the first mirror glass buildings in the world, it was designed by Eero Saarinen to ‘disappear into the sky’ despite its awesome presence in the midst of farms and pastures in the area.

Inside, no offices are along the windows. Instead, a series of catwalks provide hallways separating the offices from the outer glass skin and the central atrium in the middle. Offices had no windows, decades before computer programmers began working in batcaves.

It made coffee break conversations in the atrium all the more inviting, encouraging interaction while providing quiet solitude when you wanted to work on your own.

When I was being shown around the facility by my first boss, Dick Grantges, he paused as we passed the reflecting ponds at the front of the building. Resting his arms on the banister and gazing out at the geese, he sighed and said that one of the things he liked best about working at Bell Labs is that if you get your best ideas while gazing out the windows, then we’ll pay you to stare at geese. Dick was a great boss – and he appreciated my trips back to Canada that always included bringing him an extra box of Red River Cereal.

Two million square feet of offices in a six story building on 472 acres. Taxes of more than $3M.

When I worked there in the late 1980s, there were more than 5000 people on-site. AT&T Communications, the long distance company, had separated from the RBOCs, but it was still integrated with what would become Lucent and Avaya. With all of the structural changes that have dissected the piece parts of the Bell Labs organization, only a thousand people remain at the Holmdel facility.

Despite AT&T reuniting with a large part of its baby Bell offspring, there is no way to put all of Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Sure, it’s only a building. But it was also a symbol of the once mighty industrial research giant. Watching Lucent sell the Holmdel facility is another loss of America’s back pages.

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