New Jersey’s Bell Works Building Has a Florist. Here’s What She’s Seen.

Including a slow return to office and the tenacity of brick-and-mortar retail


For the Bell Works Building, née Bell Labs, it’s been a rough multi-decade ride, from riches to rags and back to riches.

Designed in the late 1950s by internationally celebrated architect Eero Saarinen, the sprawling complex in Holmdel, N.J., was imbued with bad luck almost from the beginning. Saarinen, then 51, died in 1961, before the 2 million-square-foot project was completed.

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From the outside it was another expression of the International school of architecture, all glass and steel and dedicated to form following function. But inside it was breathtaking, with a vast open atrium designed to pull people from their offices to interact in its indoor courtyards.

And, like a lot of buildings by Saarinen and others, it would outlast its time. People of a certain age will recall when AT&T was a monopoly sometimes called Bell Telephone, which originally commissioned the building along with Western Electric, as a vast laboratory for telecommunications advancement. It was a site for technological innovation well before the building. It was the place where it was discovered that the Milky Way Galaxy was giving off radiation. It was where the transistor was invented. And after Saarinen’s building was erected, the innovations continued, including the laser beam and the Big Bang Theory. 

But then it all ended. After the courts broke up the Bell monopoly in 1982, the building went with Lucent Technologies, which later merged with the French phone company Alcatel. Too expensive to operate, Alcatel-Lucent shut down the Bell Labs building and put it on the market in 2006. It was listed by the Cultural Landscape Foundation the following year as one of New Jersey’s 10 most endangered historic sites. 

As it stood empty, ideas for its future flowed like water, including replacing it with suburban tract housing, like the acres that surround it. Then, in 2013, Ralph Zucker’s Somerset Development, now known as Inspired by Somerset Development, bought it, with an eye toward creating a “metroburb” encapsulating the liveliness of a city surrounded by the tranquility of a suburb.

Now, where to begin? Times have caught up with what’s now the Bell Works building, with such tenants as ICIMS, a cloud-based human resources and job recruiting company, and Cisco Systems, the digital communications technology conglomerate, Jersey Central Power & Light, Santander Bank and Vonage. Now 95 percent occupied, it’s probably better identified by the 110 or so companies that call it home, including a bunch who share CoLab, the building’s own coworking space. The structure also features restaurants, bars, outdoor party space and gyms — and its own basketball court.

It also has a florist: Enchanted Blossoms. Owner Jennifer Marmorato opened the shop at Bell Works in 2020, just as the pandemic threatened to reverse Zucker’s plans for the space. Hers is an interesting insight into the challenges of an independent retail tenant in New York City’s orbit. 

This mid-March interview with Marmorato has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Commercial Observer: Did you guys have another location before you came here?

Jennifer Marmorato: We started in my yard. We didn’t start to become anything. My husband had throat cancer and this was before the pandemic. So we went straight from him having cancer and me and my children already being so secluded because we couldn’t be near anybody because he was so sick. And then we went right into the pandemic.

We just kind of needed to do something, anything, just to have human contact a little bit. But we’ve had these beautiful flower gardens, I’ve been a gardener my entire life. So we took our flowers and my father built that flower cart behind you. And we just put it out at the side of the road and just let people kind of take flowers as a little gesture.

I can’t help but ask, is your husband OK?

He is OK, he’s in remission. He’s been doing great.

So where did the flowers come from?

I’ve always been an avid gardener since I was young. My grandfather taught me how to garden from a very young age — these big, beautiful vegetable gardens where he lived. We were always out in the gardens with him. He also had beautiful flower gardens. And, at my mother’s house. She wasn’t a gardener, but she always encouraged me to keep gardening, and I always had gardens around me. Even when I was in college and I shared a house with a bunch of kids, I had a garden. Even when I moved to Manhattan, I would have container gardens on my fire escape.

Finally, when me and my husband bought a house, we bought an old farmhouse over in Tinton Falls [a nearby town]. And the people who had lived there before us were landscapers. So they had this beautifully landscaped property with gorgeous, gorgeous flower gardens. And it was my dream house. Every year we add something new, a new tree or a new vegetable garden.

So how did you hear about Bell Works?

My father-in-law worked at Bell Labs long ago. So we always were fascinated by Bell Works and how Ralph [Zucker] had redeveloped it. We loved walking around here, pre-pandemic. As our flower cart was doing well, it was like, well, there was a fresh market here that sells artisanal goods and vegetables and pottery and soaps and all sorts of stuff. They didn’t have a flower seller.

So if it’s like, well, why don’t I try my hand at flowers at the farmers market here? And we did quite well there.

There’s something mystical about this building. You’re like, “Oh, my gosh, this can’t be a white elephant.” Something’s got to be done.

It’s an incredible building. Even when it was closed down, it was alluring. And, as I said, my father-in-law had worked here. And he had all those photos. It was just amazing.

So how did you go from “This would be nice” to actually being here?

We were out in the lobby or atrium with our cart. It was the pandemic, so there weren’t a ton of people. But we were having enough people, and people really liked us being out there. It was really making people happy to see us out in the atrium. And I felt like, “OK, if I made one person happy today, I’ve done my job.” That’s all I’ve wanted.

We started getting like a nice little following of regulars or people who are in the building — just people coming to us and recognizing us. We just kept at it and, by keeping at it, we grew a following. We developed a regular customer base, and also people who were just enjoying seeing us. We started offering deliveries. We were able to kind of expand what we were doing. You went from one cart to two carts, to two carts and a table, to two carts and a table and a workbench, and we kept growing.After a while, it was the holidays [2020].

It wasn’t quite November yet. But we approached Ralph about maybe taking over a shop, and one of the empty spaces in the building. And they were all for it. We started picking up bigger events and picking up weddings and showers and more things.

That must have been quite a change from selling flowers out of a cart to catering weddings.

We had already done a few weddings prior to that. So we were ready to take it on.

As of now, our 2023 wedding season is booked up. We’re booking  for 2024 now. So we’re doing really well with our weddings. We’re in high demand for weddings at this point. I don’t like to let people down at all. I’m very much a perfectionist. I always say to my staff, “Do it as if you’re doing it for your mother or your grandmother.”

So when you first started, it was in the middle of the pandemic.

We’ve grown with Bell Works. So as the pandemic has kind of lifted and everybody’s gotten out from the pandemic, we’ve watched. We watched everybody coming back and getting out again and getting out with their families and the kids coming back out, and everybody just returning to having some fun again. It’s wonderful to see.

Out there in the regular world, there’s been this trend toward working from home, working remotely, hybrid work, people coming in three days a week instead of five. Has it been different here?

We’re seeing as of now more people returning to work. But I definitely see more of a hybrid schedule here. But people are returning to the workplace here. For sure, they have returned. It was a very slow process. But if we see more people in the workplace, as opposed to last year, or even six months ago, that’s been wonderful to see.

Do you think the architecture plays a role? That it’s not just a regular old commodity building with four walls.

I definitely think this building offers more. I’ve worked in some pretty boring buildings myself. This building definitely offers so much more than your typical office building.

It’s like being on a city block as opposed to just being in a regular office building with a parking garage, although there is ample parking here. You’ve got your gym, you’ve got your library, you have your hair salon, your florist. You have the entertainment, you can go with a group of friends after work, you can go play basketball, you can go outside and walk around the lake. There are so many different aspects to your workdays, from nature to being indoors.

What do you think the future is here, both in terms of your shop and Bell Works as a locale?

I only see Bell Works growing in popularity. I see it on the weekends, even during the week. I would like to see us growing with Bell Works, including if that means us maybe moving into a bigger location within Bell Works.

I see it as a family business. I have a 13-year-old and an 8-year-old. And one of our employees is 20 and always wanted to be a florist. She’s kind of part of the family. I foresee us carrying on the family business. My children are both very interested in design. They’re both very good for their age. They’ve already set a high bar.