Pilgrimage Home: Bell Labs Alumni Return to See What Bell Works is All About

If the massive windows that surround the Bell Works facility could talk, they’d tell you enough stories of the history and hijinks of the iconic, 2 million square-foot building to last a lifetime.

Before the facility evolved into the metroburb it is today, it was home to thousands of innovators and creators who transformed the way we communicate across the globe. Simply put, Bell Labs was a technology juggernaut.

It produced eight Nobel Prize winners, developed the foundation for the Internet, created the first transatlantic fiber-optic cable, and connected us all with the first wireless cellular networks.

But it wasn’t all ground-breaking work. There was plenty of fun (geniuses need time to play, too). That’s why the people who worked here during its heyday have such fond memories of the facility, and several of them make pilgrimages back to see what’s become of their beloved building.

“Some people say things are so different now [at the facility], but when we went on the tour, it looked very much the same as when we were there, so they preserved a lot of it,” said Ron Kauffman, a former Bell Labs employee who toured Bell Works earlier this year with former colleagues.

It’s not uncommon to see groups of Bell Labs alumni walking through the building. They have lunch in the café. They point out their former offices. They reminisce about meeting their spouses here. They share laughs and memories. And they’re glad they get to come back to the building that was in jeopardy for so long.

Photo by Gary Murakami

Life At Bell Labs: Young, Fun and Ground-Breaking

Built in 1962 and expanded twice since, the former Bell Labs facility was once one of the largest buildings in New Jersey. And as it is today, it was a place to work and play.

“It was a lot of fun. In particular, there were a lot of young people,” said Kauffman, who began working at the facility in 1977. “They had massive hiring years from 1977 to the early 1980s, so you had a lot of people in their 20s just getting out of school. We would get together in various ways. There were many clubs, for example. They had probably 20 or 30 clubs.”

If you had an interest outside of work, there was a club for you: a French club, magic club, ski club, juggling club, and several sports leagues. They even offered courses in other vocations, such as auto repair.

Of course, there were seminars and world-class speakers coming through the facility. Kauffman recalls hearing of some guy named Steve Jobs giving a talk at the building.

“There were world experts around, and people were rewarded for cooperating across organizational boundaries or within the organization. Everyone was very helpful. I learned a lot there,” said Robert Wilson, the 1978 Nobel Prize winner.

Like any workplace, there were also some odd happenings. Like when you could take a break from work and watch Canadian geese chicks hatch by the pond in front of the building (that happened again recently just outside the windows of the vi Collaboration Hub, the coworking space here at Bell Works). Or the time the building was expanded in 1982, but there wasn’t plumbing installed in the new section.

It wasn’t a problem since there was sufficient plumbing in other sections of the building. But the Bell Labs president’s office happened to be in the expansion section. Needless to say, they installed plumbing for him.

Ending an Era and Revitalizing the Legacy

After the divestiture of Bell Labs and Lucent Technologies eventually taking over the property, things went downhill for telecom companies. The building that was once so heavily occupied that temporary offices were built in the atrium, dwindled in population.

“It was a really big place and it was exciting to be there,” said Kauffman, who worked at the facility until it closed in 2007. “So seeing it start to diminish while you were still there was sad, and after we left, we weren’t too sure what was going to be done with the building.”

Though the building remained vacant for several years, Somerset Development purchased it in 2013 and continues to transform it into a mixed-use facility for people to live, work, and play, something Bell Labs alumni are happy about, giving them a reason to return to their roots.

“When I visited a couple of weeks ago, that was the first time I’d been back since it was abandoned,” said Grace Leonard, who worked as a technical supervisor at other Bell Labs locations in the state from 1969 to 1986, but visited the Holmdel location for meetings. “I think the work and what I understand about the plans is a wonderful use of the space and I’m really glad it is being put to use for people in the community.”

Alumni are also glad to see Bell Works carry on the legacy of innovation, as many tech companies are tenants in the facility.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for hi-tech companies. I know NVIDIA is there and they’re a very well-known tech company. I’m sure the other hi-tech companies in the building are doing a lot of good stuff as well,” Kauffman said.

It may have been abandoned for a while, but the Holmdel facility is buzzing again with ground-breaking work, inspiring events, and plenty of fun activities. And now, it’s not just those windows that have stories to tell, but Bell Labs alumni can return home to walk the halls and talk about its history.

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