Thursday, May 21, 2009

Adaptive Reuse: A Practical Proposal

On pages 401-404 of American Colossus, I discuss the various ways in which grain elevators that have recently been abandoned by their owners can be "adaptively reused," that is, not used as grain elevators or grain-storage warehouses, but as something else. As I've noted before, the most common way to adaptively reuse a grain elevator is to transform it into a home, a house or a hotel. Old grain elevators have also been transformed into in-door rock-climbing facilities, planetariums and museums about grain elevators.

But what about grain elevators that have been abandoned and become derelict, even dilapidated? These are buildings that can't be reused without first spending massive amounts of money to clean them out, fix whatever damage has occurred, re-wire them for electricity, etc. On the other hand, these are, generally speaking, large buildings made of reinforced concrete, which means they are expensive to demolish. But be demolished they must, that is, if the land upon which they stand is to be sold to a buyer who doesn't want to adaptively reuse an old building, but build a new one.

Such is the "stand-off" or state of paralysis one sees in Buffalo, New York. The waterfront area is full of long-abandoned elevators made out of reinforced concrete. As time goes by, they continue to rot, get vandalized, etc. Though there are many individuals, groups and institutions in Buffalo who are involved in the documentation, appreciation and lamentation of the passing of the city's grain elevators, few of them are able to come up with truly practical solutions to the problem of adaptively reusing ruined buildings.

(Not all of the elevators in Buffalo are in the dilapidated state that renders the Superior, the Concrete Central, the Great Northern and the Connecting Terminal difficult, if not impossible, to reclaim. But those that remain in or near operable condition are more likely to be sold to ethanol-producers than reused as houses or museums, for which there is much less market demand.)

When the city has proposed or agreed that one of Buffalo's abandoned and derelict elevators be destroyed -- in the hope or with the contractual provision that the buyer of the "cleaned" property builds something valuable to the community on it -- the "preservationists" have found themselves in an untenable position. They had have no workable proposals for what to do with the Eastern States, Meyer Malting, Kreiner Malting, and, last but not least, the H & O Oats, all of which have been demolished since 2000, but without being replaced with a "new" building of any kind. The worst of both worlds: no elevator, no new building, just a vacant lot no one wants.

The demolition the H & O Oats is the most recent and most painful example. Between 2005 and 2007, there were those who wanted to demolish this abandoned and derelict grain elevator in the name of building something that would hopefully provide jobs and attract tourists/money to the area (a casino); and there were those -- the "preservationists" -- who wanted to save the elevator because Buffalo is the city in which the grain elevator was invented and developed. Both sides had strong cases: title to the land, in the case of the former (the Seneca Nation of Indians), and a pattern of indifference and neglect on the part of the city in the protection of these buildings, in the case of the preservationists. And yet both sides also had weak cases: respectively speaking, the casino could be built in such a location on the property that the H & O Oats need not be demolished, and there was in fact little else to do with the elevator (or, rather, what remained of it in the aftermath of a devastating fire in 1987) other than demolish it. In the end, the elevator was demolished and the casino was not built due to lack of capital funds.

And so, here is my proposal: commission internationally-known artists to paint gigantic murals upon these abandoned elevators, make a movie of the process, and then hold an exhibition, perhaps in tandem with a July 4th fireworks display and a projection of the aforementioned movie upon an elevator that had been painted all-white for the occasion. The effect would be truly spectacular!

Of course, the murals chosen for -- temporary? permanent? -- display would have to be much better than the one in Midland, Ontario (see below).

Gary Friesen wrote a piece about this, "North America's largest outdoor mural," in the 14 April 2001 edition of The Globe and Mail.

Painted on the side of a century-old grain elevator, the mural depicts a Jesuit missionary and a Huron-Ouendat native overlooking Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, the Jesuit mission and the first permanent European community in Canada west of the Ottawa River. Built in 1639, Sainte-Marie was the headquarters of the Jesuits sent to preach among the Huron-Ouendat natives. In 1649, after years of deadly attacks by the invading Iroquois to the south, the remaining Jesuits and Huron-Ouendats burnt Sainte-Marie to the ground and eventually returned to New France (Quebec).

Visitors can easily see the mural from anywhere along the waterfront, although the pier to the far right offers the best face-on view. Binoculars and a lawn chair would allow the viewer to experience and really appreciate the extremely detailed workmanship by artist Fred Lenz. The weather dictates when work begins as the concrete walls must be totally dry for the special mural paints to properly adhere and maintain their vibrant colours. Visitors and residents delight in watching the progress through the warmer and drier months. The mural is scheduled to be completed in time for the dedication ceremonies during Midland's annual Waterfest Weekend in early August.

The gigantic waterfront mural is the crowning achievement of artist Fred Lenz's career and the highlight of Midland's outdoor historical mural project. Over 30 huge murals splash colour and local history throughout the downtown commercial core. Sponsored by the Midland Business Improvement Association, the mural project plays a major role in an overall downtown revitalization program. With a descriptive brochure and guide map, visitors can easily stroll through almost 400 years of local history. These brochures are available throughout the community. The exquisite craftsmanship will impress you as will your appreciation of Midland's rich and unique heritage.

This outdoor historical mural project is a great idea, and could easily be brought to a place like Buffalo, but this particular mural is just awful. "Extremely detailed workmanship"?! The left arm of the Huron-Ouendat, presumably gesturing to the settlement and not extending his hand in friendship to the missionary (whose hands are hidden), is clearly deformed. This is especially poignant, given that -- in 1930, almost 25 years before the preserved remains of two of the missionaries were discovered at the site -- the eight "Canadian Martyrs" of Sainte-Marie were canonized by the Pope. Inevitably, the canonization of these missionaries meant the demonization of their killers, who weren't simply Iroquois, but members of the Seneca Nation. I hope that I'm wrong, but I sincerely doubt that any of the murals sponsored by the Midland Business Improvement Association document the displacement and devastation of both the Hurons and the Senecas.

A really strong pro-Seneca mural would be perfect for Buffalo. Some old wounds have still not healed there. To recall the last few lines of an article published in The Buffalo News on 6 December 2005, in the midst of the battle over the H & O Oats elevator:

Several critics of the project said the Senecas were showing insensitivity by not including the public in its decisions.

John Laping, chairman of the Buffalo Preservation Board, regretted there has been none of the scrutiny or public input required in Buffalo. "It's too bad the Seneca Nation does not feel the same kind of civic responsibility," said Laping.

Richard Lippes, the attorney filing the lawsuit against the purchase of the DL&W site on the grounds that it violates state and federal law, agreed. He hopes the Senecas will reconsider its decision to destroy the H-O Oats complex.

"The Senecas, perhaps more than most, should understand the importance of our history and our environment, and respect these historic structures," Lippes said.

To state the obvious: the "insensitivity" here is among those who do not know or simply refuse to admit that hundreds of years before this "historic" elevator was built -- indeed, hundreds of years before the founding of Buffalo itself -- the Senecas lived on these precise tracts of land, and that thereupon they had their own "history" and "environment." They want some of that land back? They have every right to it: not you, not me. Put that on your mural.

(Note added 23 December 2011: see the Stored Potential Project in Omaha, Nebraska, which used abandoned grain elevators to display silo-length scrolls of art on a temporary basis.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

When to stay away

One of the major themes in my book is "the problem of properly positioning yourself with respect to a colossal building [...] Kant notes that 'We must keep from going very near the Pyramids just as much as we keep from going too far from them, in order to get the full emotional effect from their size.' [...] In Derrida's words, 'So one has to find a middle place, a correct distance for uniting the maximum of comprehension [aesthetic pleasure] with the maximum of apprehension [mathematical understanding]" (American Colossus,pages 335-336). To show that this positioning of oneself in the middle isn't simply a mental or psychological process -- more than a way of enjoying that which is disturbingly large -- but also a physical one, I quote the photographer Frank Gohlke (p. 337). As I have noted before, Gohlke claims:

For me, the essential grain elevator view is obtained through the windshield of a car or truck while traveling on a highway in Kansas or Oklahoma or the Texas Panhandle. It is not a static view, but one that begins just as the elevator becomes visible above the center line, above five miles out of town, and continues until it disappears in the vibration in the rearview mirror. In the minutes that pass as the speck grows to colossal size and then shrinks to rejoin the horizon, many contradictory messages are created: we are powerful, we build for centuries, our monuments rival those of other heroic ages; we are insignificant, our hold on this landscape is tenuous, nature and time erode our greatest creations as if they were dust. What lingers is the memory, though, is the image of a solitary, upright form in the middle distance of an endless plain.

I have had a hard time reconciling all this with the example/rhetoric of Reyner Banham, the author of A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Architectural Modernism, 1900-1925 (MIT Press, 1986). In this pioneering work on the "Daylight" factories and grain elevators that were built out of reinforced concrete in Buffalo and elsewhere, Banham insists on the importance of moving in closer, getting out of the car and exploring such buildings oneself. "Although it is still possible, at some risk to life and limb, by climbing across railroad bridges and the like, to see Concrete Central from the other side [...] Closer views are not normally to be had, unless one goes up river to it or is prepared to undertake an adventurous and circuitous safari on foot [...] That journey is worth it, however" (Banham, pages 165-166).

Banham made sure his readers knew that, worth it or not, the "journey" would or could not be undertaken by anyone. Only the tough or courageous could or should do so. "My foot crashed through a rotten plywood cover that had been laid over an open culvert [...] Had I sustained an incapacitating injury, rather than mere scratches, in that fall, even those who knew approximately where I was would have no idea how to reach me, after they had finally decided that they had waited too long for my return" (Banham, p. 351).

My friend Orrin and I fancied ourselves to be just as tough and/or courageous as Reyner Banham was, and so, between 1989 and 1992, we not only asked for and were granted "official," guided tours of the Eastern States, the Perot, the Standard, and the Great Northern; we also took it upon ourselves to explore and even climb to the top of the Concrete-Central, the Superior, the Marine "A," and the GLF (all of which were abandoned and derelict). Those journeys were certainly "worth it."

But on page 405 of American Colossus, I humbly insist that "the most accurate description of our urban explorations in Buffalo would not be 'we risked life and limb,' but 'we knew when to stay away.'" I provide two examples, which I reproduce and illustrate below. In both cases, "staying away" meant "saying goodbye."

The picture above shows Meyer Malting, which was a small grain elevator built out of reinforced concrete by Monarch Engineering in 1914. Originally built to unload barley from vessels on the Erie Canal, which it faced, Meyer Malting was modified in the 1950s, when the canal was paved over and turned into railroad tracks and highways. By continuing to receive grain by truck, the malt house stayed in business until the late 1980s, when it was abandoned. Orrin and I got inside of it once. We only stayed a few minutes: the air was full of trapped car exhaust.

One day, we returned to Meyer Malting to take notes and photographs of what we'd seen the first time, but heard a noise from inside. If there had in fact been someone living inside it, or even simply visiting it, our presence might have been (mis)interpreted as invasive, hostile or unwanted. We knew from experience how difficult it was to get in and out of the building, and decided that it simply wasn't worth the risk. We left, never to return. In 2005, Meyer Malting was demolished by the City of Buffalo.

The picture above shows what remained after the fire of 1987, which destroyed most of the vast H & O Oats Milling complex in Buffalo, New York. Founded in 1893, H & O Oats built its first cereal mill on the site in 1914; it was designed by the A.E. Baxter Company. In 1931, the company added a set of grain tanks, which were made of reinforced concrete. The complex was closed in 1983 and temporarily used for the storage of tires. The fire of 1987 apparently destroyed grain tanks of all kinds: wood, steel and reinforced concrete.

When we visited the reamains of the H & O Oats in 1992, the basement looked to be permanently flooded. Someone had used a series of wooden planks to create a dry route to a staircase that presumably led to the upper levels. One of us remembered seeing a local TV news story about the rescue of a stray dog that had managed to get to the top of the 70-foot-tall structure, but couldn't get back down. We decided to stay away, and never returned. In 2006, the remains of the H & O Oats were demolished by the City of Buffalo to make way for a casino that was to be operated by the Seneca Nation. It hasn't been built.

Safe as houses: the Fallout Shelter in Kansas

It is most unfortunate that I didn't know this when I was writing American Colossus, because it fits so well into my extended discussion of dwelling in/on grain elevators.

In the 1960s, a certain grain elevator in Hutchinson, Kansas -- then known as the Far-Mar-Co Grain Elevator and today recognized as the biggest grain elevator in the world -- was equipped by the U.S. Army to serve as a fallout shelter, indeed, the biggest fallout shelter in the country, capable of housing an incredible 8,720 people (an entire town!). The photos above were taken by the US Army and placed on-line by the Civil Defense Museum.

Safe as houses: Hamburg, Germany, during the War

On page 403 of American Colossus, I mention my visit to the grain elevators (die Getreidespeichern) in Hamburg, Germany, in early 1994. I expected to see what I'd previously seen at the EuroSilo in Ghent, Belgium, and throughout the French countryside: grain elevators built after World War II and in the classic American style of elevator design (rows of gleaming-white cylindrical tanks made out of reinforced concrete). Instead, I saw a long line of elevators that had been built in a variety of styles and using a variety of building materials. There were big windowless brick buildings with flat roofs; big brick buildings with windows and pitched roofs; big windowless towers painted white; some unpainted reinforced-concrete silos; and several buildings that looked like enormous houses. Curious, I asked someone who worked at the Getreideterminal Hamburg (GTH) and was told that the some of the elevators that looked like houses were deliberately disguised to look that way, during the war, so that they wouldn't be bombed. Evidently the ruse had worked.

Safe as houses: adaptive reuse in Baltimore, Maryland

"The finest of these Florentine palaces are, I imagine, the tallest habitations in Europe that are frankly and amply habitations--not mere shafts for machinery of the American grain-elevator pattern." -- Henry James, Italian Hours (1909).

On pages 401-404 of American Colossus, I note that the most common way to adaptively reuse an abandoned grain elevator -- that is, one that has been "reclaimed" soon after it has been abandoned and hasn't experienced any significant damage in the interim -- is to convert it into a house or a hotel. This has been done, and quite successfully, in Akron, Ohio, where a Quaker Oats Elevator & Mill was transformed into a hotel in 1980; in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the Cereal Grading Company's elevator and warehouse was made into a condominium complex called Calhoun-Isles in 1982; and in Baltimore, Maryland, where the Baltimore & Ohio Grain Terminal -- note the horizontal gantries, which were typical of elevators that loaded ocean-going grain tankers (see picture above) -- was turned into SiloPoint in 2007 (see picture below).

Similar projects have recently been undertaken in Philadelphia (condominiums called "the Granary"), Minneapolis (low-income housing at "Van Cleve Court Apartments East") and Harburg, Germany.