In the shadows of Bethlehem’s Martin Tower, historic mosaics have been rescued from the rubble of concrete remaining from what was once Bethlehem Steel’s printery.
Made from 1-inch Italian tiles, one giant mosaic depicts Johannes Gutenberg, the father of the printing press, and the other Stephen Daye, America’s first printer.
The mosaics were removed over the weekend as the ancillary buildings around the 21-story tower, once Steel’s world headquarters, continue to be demolished to make room for future development. Owners Lewis Ronca and Norton Herrick agreed to a 50-year loan of the mosaics to the National Museum of Industrial History, which raised $12,000 from anonymous donors for the relocation.
“They are valuable pieces of art, but they also represent a historically important industry to the country,” said Carville G. Bevans Jr., a former direct manager of the printery who lobbied for years for the mosaics to be preserved. “Printing has been a major industry since Colonial times and during the development of the United States.”
One mosaic shows Gutenberg in 1454 standing next to his press, which led to the mass production of books and put knowledge in the hands of a broader segment of the population. In the other mosaic, Daye stands next to his press in 1638, the year he arrived in Cambridge, Mass., and subsequently set up America’s first printing press at Harvard College.
The mosaics had been sketched and sent to Italy where thousands of tiles were cut, numbered and returned to Bethlehem to be set in the walls of the printery, which was erected in 1959 near Eighth and Easton avenues, Bevans said.
The full-color mosaics had been placed in the vestibule between the printery’s two glass doors, a front entrance used by salaried employees and sales people for nearly 40 years.
Christine Ussler, an architect and professor of practice at Lehigh University, called the mosaics historically important because of their association with Bethlehem Steel, once the nation’s second largest steelmaker. A company installing valuable artwork in a printery is a statement to the strong position the company believed it was in by the mid-20th century, she said.
Duane Wagner, of HRP Management, the development arm of the developers, said the owners are still determining the monetary value of the mosaics, but already understand the community value.
He said the loan to the museum will provide the public access to wonderful pieces of art that were largely inaccessible to most in the Lehigh Valley because they adorned a company printery.
Bevans and others who worked at the printery remembered the mosaics, prompting conversations among community groups over the summer about saving them. Bevans said he sent letters to the museum about the mosaics.
Museum officials say they have been working on securing the mosaics for much of the year, but no one was certain that the mosaics could safely be removed until they were taken off a truck over the weekend.
The tiles were affixed to concrete blocks, requiring the contractors, Eshbach Brothers of Reading, to cut into the block 6 inches and remove each mosaic in one piece.
“It was a delicate task. The mosaics are made up of thousands of individual pieces surround by mortar,” Wagner said. “If any of that shifted in any way, it might not have worked out as it did.”
According to museum officials, the contractors reinforced the mortar while museum officials held their breath during the transport from Martin Tower campus to the museum, which overlooks the blast furnaces.
One mosaic measures 43 feet square feet and the other 38 square feet. With each weighing at least 1,200 pounds, a forklift was needed to take the mosaics off the truck and into the museum lobby.
Kara Cenni, interim museum president and CEO, said the museum is delighted to be able to display the mosaics so many years after Steel declared bankruptcy and ultimately shut down the printery.
She said the display will dovetail with a 2018 exhibit planned to highlight the printing industry.
“The mosaics represent an early industry and the innovators who made that happen,” Cenni said.
But just as appealing, she said, is that those images were put in the halls of a steelmaking company that had its own printery.
Steel’s printing operation began in 1912, about eight years after it was organized as Bethlehem Steel Co. under Charles Schwab’s leadership.
The original printery services were in a small room in the basement of the office on Third Street. But Steel needed a bigger printery as the company exploded as it filled the demand for steel during two World Wars and the building of city skylines.
In 1942, the operation moved to its first stand-alone location at the old Eagle Silk Mill at Broad and Wood streets. The Forms Control, run by printery personnel, was established in 1953 to complement the processing of printed material. By 1959, the printery was moved to a 100,000-square-foot facility at Eighth and Eaton avenues, where the North Building and Martin Tower were later built. Up to 18 tons of printed materials were shipped to Steel facilities around the country, according to Bevans.
Steel executives sought to make the printing operation profitable by the early 1980s. CEO Walter Williams authorized the printery to solicit commercial printing work. Among its first customers were Lehigh University, First Valley Bank and 1,000 Forms Inc. In 1985, the operating budget was $6.5 million, Bevans said.
Production workers in the printery were members of United Steelworkers of America Local 5349 AFL-CIO-CLC. They were considered one of four locals within Bethlehem plant, although they were organizationally within the home office.
Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and sold its assets to the International Steel Group, which consolidated with Mittal Steel. The Martin Tower campus, which includes the printery, was scooped up a decade ago by an partnership that now includes Ronca and Herrick.
Original plans for the development included condominiums, but that never moved forward as the housing market tanked.
The developers have not announced plans for Martin Tower — or whether it will be razed — or the rest of the campus yet, but have pulled permits this year for asbestos abatement and the demolition of the ancillary buildings, including the printery and the boiler house.
Nearly two years ago, the city rezoned the campus for mixed-use development.