From Drab to Fab - The Iacocca Conference Center

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Monday, March 12, 2018
If you’re like Mary Kay Baker, Director of Conference and Special Housing Services, who has worked at Lehigh since the late 1980s, you may remember when the Wood Dining Room in Iacocca Hall served a hot lunch each day. As times changed and lunch habits shifted, however, the expansive room with sweeping views of the Lehigh Valley saw fewer and fewer paying customers. 
“Some people would bring their own lunches to sit and enjoy the atmosphere,” Mary Kay explained. “But, over time, there really wasn’t enough business to sustain it as a cafeteria.”
Not only that, having this prime location tied up for lunch every day limited its usefulness as a rental space for Lehigh. Turning away lunchtime business didn’t make financial sense. “It wasn’t cost effective,” noted Laura Bachman, Assistant Director of Conference and Special Housing Services. Eventually, the decision was made to end cafeteria service in the Wood Dining room and instead open a cafe in the building’s lobby. 
With food service moved downstairs, more serious discussion about improving all of the meeting spaces in the building ensued. Anyone taking a quick glance around the dining room, Governor’s Suite, and Tower Room could see the spaces were dated and lacked amenities like electronic lighting control and up-to-date audio visual equipment that have come to be considered basic necessities in modern meeting venues.
In 2015, consultants from Unique Venues came to campus to conduct a feasibility study and business plan for Iacocca Hall. The final report included specific recommendations for renovations including branding, facility upgrades, and marketing opportunities. Ewing Cole, a Philadelphia-based architecture and design firm was then hired to assist with the refresh and redesign project for the newly rebranded Iacocca Conference Center.
EwingCole developed a project vision that included a cleaner and more consistent aesthetic, updated spaces, more durable and modern materials and a contemporary look and feel. The redesign addressed lighting and acoustical issues, deteriorating materials, worn finishes, limited functionality of some spaces and outdated technology. Kristine Dwyer in Facilities Services and Campus Planning oversaw the project and the work was completed by Boyle Construction of Allentown.
Recently, Mary Kay and Laura shared their thoughts about the project while relaxing in a cozy grouping of chairs installed where the cafeteria line used to be. This area has quickly become a favorite spot during events for mingling or catching up on email. 
“In the past, there had been some reluctance to consider renovating these rooms, they were so iconic and associated with the Bethlehem Steel legacy,” Mary Kay reflected. “But working with EwingCole, Kris Dwyer, and [Lehigh Associate Vice President and Architect] Brent Stringfellow, we were able to communicate and execute a concept that really revealed and enhanced the building’s mid- twentieth century architectural elements while bringing the facilities into the twenty-first century.”
As with most projects, there were many complexities to the renovation, big and small. Mary Kay said Brent’s understanding of the need for the project was a huge help. “Brent and Kris were so accessible,” she noted. “They really rolled with all of the little ideas and things that we brought to them.”
Laura says the rooms are already being booked for events as diverse as luncheons, meetings, weddings, and holiday parties. Lehigh Valley Hospital Network used the space for its World AIDS Day event. “Clients who have used the space in the past who have visited since the renovations are particularly impressed with the transformation,” she added. “We’ve enhanced the dining room’s beauty, especially, with a color palette that really draws your eye to the windows.”
Mary Kay nods in agreement. “There are other beautiful conference spaces in the Lehigh Valley,” she said. “But nobody else has this view.”
Special Discount Offer for Employees
Do you have a personal, private celebratory event coming up in your life? You might consider taking advantage of a very special discount for Lehigh faculty and staff.  Employees receive a fifty percent discount on the rental fee for spaces within the Iacocca Conference Center, which includes the Wood Dining Room, Governor’s Suite and Tower Room. 
The discount is limited to events within an employee’s immediate family (spouses, children, parents) and the employee renting the space must attend the event. Examples of eligible events include: graduation parties, baby or bridal showers, weddings, and birthday parties. 
The event must be private in order to be eligible for the discount. “Risk Management and the General Counsel have been heavily involved in creating our policies and procedures and it’s important we follow them to protect the interests of the University,” Mary Kay explained. “But we want to extend this generous discount to employees so they can celebrate the special moments in their families lives here at Lehigh.”
For more information about booking the Iacocca Conference Center for a Lehigh-affiliated event or for a personal private event, contact Mary Kay and Laura in Conference and Special Housing Services at 610-758-5306 or
Before And After: The Transformation