Saturday, April 18, 2009

Grain elevator/ethanol plant in Peoria, Illinois

In a prior posting, I mentioned the existence of a large grain elevator/ethanol refinery in Peoria, Illinois. It has been owned and operated by Archer-Daniels Midland since 1980. Had I had the time to do so, I would have directed people's attention to it during the Inland Visual Studies Symposium, at which I gave a brief talk on 16 April 2009. The photograph above was taken by someone who calls himself "Astro Punk" and posts his/her photos to Flickr, which is where I found this one.

Let's begin in the middle, with the barge, which we might imagine to be full of corn in bulk. Upon the shore, perpendicular and right next to the barge, there appears to be a marine tower, that is to say, a tower that contains an elevating leg. Such a leg -- unenclosed in a tower or container of any kind -- certainly stands right behind it. Perhaps they form part of a single grain-unloading system.

To the left (our right) stand four sets of grain tanks that are made out of steel, climb to different heights, and no doubt store different amounts of grain. Perhaps they were built over the course of several years, circa 1900-1915.

Behind and, indeed, rising up between these groups of steel tanks, there is a very tall, unenclosed elevating leg. Right next to this leg, there is the top of a tall workhouse made out of reinforced concrete and the top of a smokestack, which suggests the location of the complex's boiler/engine room. Note well that, beneath and on the other side of this workhouse, there is a silo-building made out of reinforced concrete (not captured by this photo). Judging by its size, this silo-building can probably store as many as one million bushels of grain. It might have been built around 1925.

There is some kind of horizontal gantry or conveyor-belt that -- moving from right to left, across the photo -- connects either the workhouse or the silo-building to another building. From the looks of it, this building could be another, older grain elevator, probably built out of brick and iron, and now used for auxiliary storage. Note that this "second elevator" has its own smokestack and thus its own boiler/engine room. It might have been built anywhere between 1885 and 1915.

Let's return to the barge at the center of the photo: to its right (our left), there is a building with four vertical pipes or tubes on the side that faces the river. Dust collection units? To the right (our left) of this building, there appears to be an old marine tower. Perhaps it unloaded grain from ships and then sent it back to what I have imagined to be the older of the grain storage warehouses on the premises. In any case, behind this structure there can be seen the tops of the steel tanks that are part of the ethanol refinery, which is better seen from the other side of the complex, that is to say, from the side that borders the railroad tracks. The refinery was probably built between 1965 and 1980.

As for the building(s) that stand(s) on the left side of this photo, I am uncertain. An old flourmill? Something built at the same time as the old grain elevator? Yet another grain elevator?

Playing in Peoria, Illinois, continued

My talk in Peoria on 16 April 2009 is mentioned in Lydia's blog. She reports that,

Artists, curators, and students of art were on campus Thursday for the first Inland Visual Studies Center Symposium. The Center focuses on the history and current state of visual studies in the Midwest. Bill Brown, author of American Colossus: The Grain Elevator, 1843–1943, spoke about the sublime impact of something as huge as a grain elevator rising from our flat midwestern prairies.

This uncredited photo shows me in front of a computerized projection of a photograph by Frank Gohlke.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Playing in Peoria, Illinois

As previously announced, on Thursday 16 April 2009, I gave a brief presentation at a symposium organized by the Inland Visual Studies Center at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Because my presentation was very brief (allotted 10 minutes of speaking time, I spoke for 10 minutes, during which I managed to read aloud pages 335-337 of American Colossus, which concern the "sublimity" of colossal objects), and because I did not have the opportunity to answer a single question at the end of the 90-minute-long panel, I will keep my commentary here brief as well.

1. I saw a great many grain elevators during the five-hour-long drive from Cincinnati to Peoria, and this was quite a treat, even though I saw them from a car traveling 65 miles an hour and I never exited the highway, not to mention got out of the car to take a closer (and better) look. Most of these elevators were small "country" elevators that stored their grain in a few very large cylindrical steel tanks, many of them either brand-new, recently painted or coated with a substance that preserves or protects their "original" shine. The elevating legs at these structures (also made of steel) were "naked," that is, not enclosed in buildings of their own, but exposed to sight and the elements just as they are. It was only when we approached and then crossed into Illinois from Indiana that the grain elevators were larger and employed grain bins (and workhouses) made out of reinforced concrete.

2. On the way into downtown Peoria - indeed, standing right behind the Prairie Arts Center, which was where the reception and inaugural lecture for the Inland Visual Studies Center's symposium were held - I "delighted" in the sight of a large grain elevator located on the banks of the Illinois River, built out of reinforced concrete and currently operated by Archer-Daniels Midland. "Delighted" has to be in quotes, because it was clear from the machine/buildings that had been added to the original structure, which was evidently a lake-to-rail/rail-to-lake transshipping elevator built sometime around 1930, that the complex was now an ethanol plant. As I mention on page 30 of American Colossus, ethanol is a perfect example of the illogical "rationality" of the profit-driven market: it is "surplus grain" (corn, in fact) that is plentiful for some -- but not for all -- precisely because petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides were used to grow it, and that gets processed into "food for cars" because petrochemical fuel is reputedly too expensive.

3. Not surprisingly, several of the farmlands along the route from Cincinnati to Peoria bore signs that proclaimed that these farmlands or, more precisely, the corn and soybeans grown on them, were to America what oil fields are to Saudi Arabia: sources of pride, profit and power. But there is another illogical "rationality" at the basis of such boosterism: it aims to reduce America's dependence on petrochemical fuels that come from foreign countries, but ignores or rather reinforces America's dependence on petrochemical fuels as such. (Note: gas stations in the Indiana/Illinois area inform their patrons that up to 10% of the "gasoline" available at their pumps is ethanol, but this doesn't mean that the "gasoline" for sale is 10% cheaper, or a source of 10% less air pollution.)

4. It was certainly gratifying that two participants in the symposium -- Bruce Lindsey, an architect/professor at Washington University in St. Louis who gave the inaugural lecture mentioned above, and Bennet Johnson, a professional architect from Chicago who participated in one of the two panels that preceded the one I attended -- gave PowerPoint presentations that included pictures of grain elevators, one of which (the Sante Fe Elevator in Chicago) I recognized right away. But it was regrettable that neither gentleman was free to attend the other panels at the symposium, or at the very least "my" panel, which began just minutes after the conclusion of the box-lunch meal at which we were introduced to each other. Also regrettable was the subsequent absence of two other people who either said intelligent things during their respective presentations and/or lunch: Michael Mercil (Ohio State University) and Greg Samata (a computer programmer/video artist from Dundee, Illinois). Their presence was sorely missed during "my" panel, at which one heard that wheat was growing and waving in the wind when the frontiersmen and "settlers" of the 19th century arrived in the Midwest (Bill Conger, a curator/professor at Illinois State University); that "people" in New York City -- which was consistently denounced during the two morning panels -- are alienated or separated from nature, while people in the Midwest -- which was consistently praised for its difference from the "coastal" regions of the country -- are closer to or "in touch" with nature (Paul Krainak, Bradley University); and that the Midwest -- far from being connected to both the Great Lakes and the eastern seaboard through a vast system of rivers and canals -- is actually "landlocked" (Bob Esmer, a sculptor from Chicago).

5. To the aforementioned gentlemen: the Midwest (aka "the Prairies") is not a natural environment, far from it; its entire indigenous ecosystem -- which included Native American peoples, prairie grasses and herds of buffalo -- was in fact destroyed and then replaced with a new one, which was half-imported from the Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries and half-created by the dictates of the global market of the 19th and 20th centuries. In a word, it is as "natural" as New York City's Central Park.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Elevator made out of iron, Philadelphia

On pages 192-193, I mention that a largely unknown engineer named George H. Johnson designed at least three pioneering, fireproofed grain elevators in the 1850s and 1860s. Two of them were made out of iron (Bessemer steel), and one was made of brick. The iron elevators were located in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, while the brick-binned elevator was located in Buffalo.

A picture of the iron elevator in Brooklyn appears in a book published by Johnson's employer, Daniel Badger, entitled Illustrations of Iron Architecture (New York: Baker & Godwin, 1865-1867). Here we seem to have a photograph of the iron elevator in Philadelphia. Though the main houses of the two structures are similar - massive, six-story buildings with brick facades that are divided into regular grids by cast-iron columns and arches - the Philadelphia elevator has two, very tall elevating towers, while the Brooklyn elevator (if memory serves) had a single cupola at one end of it.

The Bennett Elevator

On page 192, I mention that an excellent photograph of the Bennett Elevator (built in 1863) was published in Frank Severance's A Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo (published in 1913) and reprinted in Reyner Banham's A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture 1900-1925 (published in 1986). Adjacent to the Evans Slip and facing Buffalo Creek, the Bennett was designed and built by Robert Dunbar on the very spot upon which the pioneering Dart Elevator stood from 1843 until it burned down on 8 September 1862 (cf. "Fire in Buffalo," New York Times, September 9, 1862).

Note well that in this story the Times refers to the old Dart Elevator as "D.S. Bennett's Elevator," not Joseph Dart's Elevator. According to J.N. Larned, author of A History of Buffalo, Delineating the Evolution of the City, Volume I (published 1911),

the Dart elevator, purchased after some years by Mr David S. Bennett, was burned in 1863 and rebuilt by Mr Bennett on a greatly enlarged scale, having a storage capacity of 600,000 bushels. For many years this Bennett elevator was representative of the highest development of elevator construction.

But no one seems to know exactly when Joseph Dart sold his elevator to David Bennett. Likely times would have been around 1846, when "his" elevator was doubled in size and speed, and during or after the Panic of 1857.

As for the Bennett Elevator being "representative of the highest development of elevator construction," J.N. Larned was obviously referring to the period between 1860 and 1900, that is, before steel was used in the construction of both grain bins and the structures that contained them. Incredibly capacious though they may have been, the grain bins inside the Bennett Elevator were still made of wood and, though clad in iron, the main house was also (still) made of wood. And yet the Bennett was so well-designed that it remained standing until 1912, when it was finally taken down.

Note well that the engine/boiler room was located within the main house and very close to the marine tower. (Note the proximity of the smokestack to the "super tower" that clearly contains the top part of the elevating leg.) Typical of elevator-design in the 19th century, this arrangement was used because it minimized the distance that the elevator's various ropes and belts would need to travel to get power from the engine/boiler room to the elevator's primary machines. But it also increased the risk that sparks created by the mechanical apparatus would ignite the clouds of grain dust that inevitably collected in the marine tower and the main house itself.

And so, the surpassing of the "highest development of elevator construction" represented by the Bennett Elevator was not only driven by the switch from wood to steel, which was made to minimize the likelihood of and/or damages caused by grain-dust explosions. It was also driven by the idea that, in order to further minimize explosions, the elevator's functions should be distributed among three, spatially distinct buildings (the powerhouse, the marine tower, and the mainhouse). Should an explosion occur in one building, it would not spread to the others.