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A modest proposal.

No, it’s not really purple.

The property: Martin Tower, 1170 8th Avenue, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

The history: Former headquarters of Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Opened in 1972, just in time for the Steel’s prolonged and fatal tailspin. Famously designed in a cross shape to create more corner offices for mid- to upper-level managers.

The challenge: Vacant since sometime around 2004. No immediate viable options for reuse. Interior layouts said to be impractical. Asbestos also an issue. Currently being plundered for scrap metal.
But: Status as tallest building in the Lehigh Valley argues against demolition, as does close link to cherished industrial heritage.

The solution …

The American Museum of Corporate History, a cutting-edge historical destination summarizing Americans’ complicated relationships with their biggest employers — while also offering a unique, fastidiously detailed you-are-there recreation of the daily life of corporate fat cats, Seventies-style.

The rationale: Americans’ longstanding love-hate relationships with major corporations provide a rich trove of shared emotion and experience that deserves to be explored. And the potential pool of visitors is practically limitless: Who hasn’t spent time working for a corporation, or had a close friend or family member who has?

As for the historical recreation, “Mad Men” (just to name one example) proves Americans are fascinated by what happens at the junction of money, power, conspicuous consumption and pre-PC morality. At the recreation, visitors will step right into the pampered, hubris-cushioned world of an American corporate boardroom circa 1975.

The funding: Requiring every Fortune 500 company in America to ante up $50,000 would provide an instant kitty of $25 million for renovation and construction, with private donations adding to that total.

Funding for ongoing operations could be raised through modest admission fees, as well as levying a small surcharge on every personal sale of stock by a current or former Fortune 500 corporate officer.

The displays, floor by floor:

Floors 1-2: A sweeping two-floor entrance, highlighted by a massive abstract sculpture (titled “This Is An Exciting Time for the Company”) showing an engineer filling out a hard-copy vacation request. Visitors stop at the original, authentic Bethlehem Steel guard booths to get the lanyard granting them access to the museum. (The lanyard, of course, features an off-center, yellow-tinted, sickly-looking photo of the visitor.)

Floor 3: Interactive displays on the roots of the American corporation and the growth of regional, national and international mega-employers. Where did American corporate culture come from and who shaped its growth?

Floor 4: The little guy enters the picture. A floor full of displays on the average American corporate employee’s daily life and interaction with his or her employer, spotlighting the question: “Just what do we owe the company in return for health coverage, a dividend, and/or a roof over our heads?” (In an attempt to avoid cliche and cast a fresh eye, not a single Dilbert cartoon will be featured on this floor.)

Floor 5: A rotating series of up-close-and-personal displays on American corporate icons, from John D. Rockefeller to Jack Welch and beyond. Bethlehem’s own Lee Iacocca is a hands-down lock for one of the inaugural displays when the museum opens.

Floor 6: This being Bethlehem Steel’s old building, Floor 6 features extensive displays on the rise and fall of this most definitively American company.

Floor 7: The centerpiece of the whole museum — the executive suite/boardroom reconstruction. Think of it like Williamsburg, Jamestown or Olde Sturbridge Village, except set in 1975 corporate America.
Visitors move from office to office interacting with actors who portray fictional but realistic characters, including the chainsmoking, snappish CEO …
… the vice president of engineering whose racism only comes out when he drinks, which is often …
… the insecure, recently promoted youngest senior manager who knows the Japanese are about to eat the company’s lunch …
… and the thirtysomething secretary growing worried about her legs.

(To add verisimilitude, by the way, the parking spaces closest to the front door will be filled by lovingly restored ’74 Lincoln Continentals, while a scattering of Chevy Vegas will be seeded throughout the more distant spots in a silent tribute to America’s corporate foot soldiers.)

The cigarette smoke, the leather chairs, the office putting greens, the coarse jokes, the long lunches, the rotary phones, the newspapers open to the stock page — it’s all here, and it’s all real.

As an added bonus, one lucky crowd of visitors per day will get to see some unfortunate middle manager get dressed down, fired and escorted out of the building. Didn’t see it this visit? Better come back!

Floor 8: A good-sized theater that will host multi-day conferences featuring speeches by academics and corporate types, as well as dramatic readings from old annual reports. It can also be rented out for annual meetings.

Floor 9: The Memorial Roll. This floor will be stripped down to its outer walls, which will be covered by used computer punch cards — with each card bearing the name of a major American employer that has gone bankrupt or been bought out. Burly ex-shop foremen and fleece-clad retired human resources managers mingle together as they gently rub their fingertips over the list of hallowed names.

Floor 10: The gift shop. Popular items include stuffed mice wearing T-shirts that say “I WON THE RAT RACE” … a leather boardroom chair in which the visitor can have his or her picture taken … and gag notepaper pads that look like expense reports.

Floors 11-18: At first these will remain vacant; the elevators simply won’t stop there. As the museum gains popularity, these floors will be refurbished and rented to companies that understand the sheer meta/ironic/recursive awesomeness of having the American Museum of Corporate History as their office address.

Floor 19: See below.

Floors 20-21: The Golden Parachute Grill, a lavish steakhouse serving martinis and hand-cut Angus beef aged in a meat locker on the 19th floor. Those who prefer to nurse their girlish figures can choose the Secretary’s Special — cottage cheese and TAB.

The problem: Solved. You’re welcome.


10 responses »

  1. This is one of the absolute best pieces you’ve ever written! Perhaps I’m biased because it hits so close to home, but you certainly know of what you speak.

    I have a few ideas of displays for your free floors; let me get my thoughts together and I’ll send you another reply.


  2. How about dedicating a floor to “Corporate Fads, Buzzwords, and 3-4-Letter Acronyms”, those noble-sounding panaceas sold to corporate execs at great cost by a bevy of consulting companies, many of which became corporate giants themselves with these products, which seemingly only machine operators and janitors (excuse me: sanitation engineers) could see were unclothed emperors. Lean manufacturing, JIT, Class A MRP, ERP, LIFO, FIFO, Strategic Intent, 6-Sigma Quality, 360-degree performance appraisals, participative management,… Adopting such programs, at great cost to company coffers, made execs look like they were doing all the right things when in fact they were convenient cop-outs which kept them from addressing their key business issues.

  3. Another Display: “Corporate-Speak and Euphemisms” – Things like “right-sizing”, “re-valuing”, etc. Have a quiz where actual upbeat corporate communications to stockholders are shown, and the visitor has to ascertain/guess the actual meaning, things like “we’re laying off half the workforce”, “we’ve given our top management huge bonuses”, or “we’re going Chapter 11 next week”.

  4. Not to be redundant, but yeah, this is brilliant. Best word for it. So vivid and clever and a great blend of history, humor, keen insight. Really missed your writing, man.

  5. How ’bout a “Corporate Dress Code Room”, with various dummies (just like reality) dressed in period dress code clothes, including the famous IBM salesman and technician dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, and HAT (and yes, in this period of time they were all men). And they did wear hats, which I think they were allowed to take off inside. I have seen IBM technicians repairing machines in their dark suits.

    One corner of the room could feature “Dress-Down Friday” fashions, such as they were in the early 70s (as I recall, we were allowed to take our ties off).

    • I appear to have hit a nerve with you.

      • Having worked for the Man for 32 years and survived (some would even say flourished), and now being free of same, is a great feeling. Ya gotta learn the rules and play the game without losing your individuality; you’re succeeding!

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