An Industrial Legacy Worth Saving

February 1, 2021

Iker Gil writes about the latest threat to the industrial architecture of Chicago that is disappearing in front of our eyes.


Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 01

Chicago Union Station Power House, Chicago, IL, 2021. © Iker Gil.

On January 28, Preservation Chicago tweeted to alert the public about the threat of demolition of the Chicago Union Station Power House, an Art Deco-style industrial building designed by the renowned architecture office Graham, Anderson, Probst and White in 1931. Its owner, Amtrak, is requesting demolition approval in the next few days that would level the building to create a parking lot and a shed. The nonprofit preservation organization has created a petition to raise awareness of the situation and try to save the building.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 02

Chicago Union Station Power House, Chicago, IL, 2021. © Iker Gil.

The news is, unfortunately, not surprising. The building, that has sat empty for a decade, was included in Preservation Chicago’s 2017 and 2020 Chicago 7 Most Endangered list, and in late 2019 there were articles in the news about the intention by Amtrak to demolish it. The building has a remarkable presence in the South Loop of Chicago, with its brick massing, vertical windows, and two towering black smokestacks. It is a building that exemplifies the role that Chicago has played as a hub of transportation, and more specifically, rail transportation since mid-nineteenth century.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 03

Chicago Union Station Power House, Chicago, IL, 2021. © Iker Gil.

Before and around the time of the construction of the Chicago Union Station Power House, its architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White had completed some of the most important buildings in Chicago: the nearby Old Chicago Main Post Office (1921 and expanded in 1932), The Wrigley Building (1924), the Civic Opera House (1929), the John G. Shedd Aquarium (1929), and the Merchandise Mart (1930), the largest building in the world at the time, with 4 million square feet. During those years, the office also worked for the Chicago Union Station Company completing a series infrastructure-related projects that included the Union Station (1925), a building originally designed by Daniel Burnham (Graham, Anderson, Probst and White was the successor firm of D. H. Burnham & Company).

This is the latest threat to the industrial architecture of Chicago that is disappearing in front of our eyes. Last December, there was a demolition permit issued for the Larkin Company Building, a vacant eight-story masonry building located in Chicago’s Central Manufacturing District. The 1912 building, designed by F. E. Lockwood, is one of the sixty-five contributing properties to the Central Manufacturing District–Original East Historic District, entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. The Central Manufacturing District (CMD) was the nation’s first planned industrial district that emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century. As noted by Preservation Chicago in its 2014 Chicago 7 Most Endangered list, “in 1925 there were more than 40,000 people working at the CMD and the Union Stockyards with the CMD working as a private banker, business incubator and maintaining the general grounds of the development. It was once such an important and bustling district that it had its own police force and during the Great Depression the company extended credit terms and worked with firms at the CMD so that only a single company failed.” The Larkin Company Building is the last in a list of buildings in the Central Manufacturing District lost to fires and demolition, most recently the Wrigley Factory. Soon, a key part of Chicago’s history will be lost.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 04

Aftermath of a Chicago warehouse fire in the Central Manufacturing District, Chicago, IL, 2013. © David Schalliol.

A similar threat is being faced by the power substations designed by noted architect Hermann von Holst. Von Holst practiced architecture in Chicago from the 1890s (independently since 1905) until the 1920s when he moved to Boca Raton. He also oversaw Frank Lloyd Wright’s practice when Wright went off to Europe in 1909. In Chicago, he was responsible for the design of multiple substations across the city for the Commonwealth Edison Company, many of them included in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Survey. The Washington Park Substation, also known as the Gaitan Building, (6141 S. Prairie Avenue) has been vacant for years, neglected and in a state of disrepair. It is a beautifully designed brick building, fitting nicely within the neighborhood in which it sits, and featuring remarkable limestone ornamentation with power-related motifs. It is clear how its scale and beautiful space could be repurposed with social, cultural, educational, and commercial programs that could contribute to and fill the needs of the nearby community. Unfortunately, his 40th St. Substation (626 E. 40th Street) in the Bronzeville neighborhood has already been demolished.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 05

Washington Park Substation / Gaitan Building, Chicago, IL, 2007. © David Schalliol.

If things don’t change dramatically, it is not hard to predict the future of the 1897 Archer Daniels Midland Wheat Mill in the western edge of the Fulton Market District, a neighborhood that has changed dramatically in recent years, from a meatpacking and warehouse district to being the home of tech companies, corporate headquarters, and hospitality. Developer Sterling Bay is now the owner of the 138,000-square-foot old wheat mill sitting in a 2.2-acre lot that has operated in that location for 120 years. The developer is expected to demolish the complex of brick loft buildings, grain elevator, and concrete silos to redevelop the site for new uses. Why not consider hosting those new uses in some of the existing buildings?

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 06

Archer Daniels Midland silos, Chicago, IL, 2019. © Iker Gil.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 07

Archer Daniels Midland silos, Chicago, IL, 2019. © Iker Gil.

The Damen silos, built in 1906 by the Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, have been empty since 1977. A popular destination for urban explorers and a set for Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), they continue to anchor the peninsula they sit in by the South Branch of the Chicago River. Seeing these silos, it is hard not to think about projects that have successfully adapted silos in other cities, such as Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura’s La Fabrica outside Barcelona, Heatherwick Studio’s Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, MVRDV’s Frøsilos 84-apartments building in Copenhagen, HRTB Arkitekter AS’s Grünerløkka Studenthus student housing complex in Oslo, or even Silo City in Buffalo.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 08

La Fábrica, Sant Just Desvern, Spain, 2019. © Iker Gil.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 09

La Fábrica, Sant Just Desvern, Spain, 2019. © Iker Gil.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 11

La Fábrica, Sant Just Desvern, Spain, 2019. © Iker Gil.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 10

La Fábrica, Sant Just Desvern, Spain, 2019. © Iker Gil.

Considering all these industrial buildings has prompted me to think about an essay that I wrote last year about the urban transformation of Bilbao, which touched upon the effects it has had in its remarkable industrial heritage. (For more about Bilbao, you can read the issue that MAS Context dedicated to the city in 2017.)

Like Chicago, the role of industry in Bilbao has been vital not only for its economic development but also for its urban development along the river and its surrounding areas. The architecture that was created to support the different industries has defined an important part of the urban identity of the metropolitan area of Bilbao. They were industrial buildings of great architectural merit, with unique spaces sized for the activities they were hosting. These large industrial buildings were complemented by other buildings such as the headquarters for the industrial companies and worker housing. Unfortunately, the decline of the industrial economy in Bilbao that started in the late 1970s has been followed in many cases by the destruction of the industrial architecture, erasing the urban traces of such an important past for the city. Loading bays along the Nervión River, a symbol of its role as an active port, steel factories, and other industrial buildings found within the fabric of the city have all been destroyed. In some cases, those sites have remained vacant, and in others, they have been replaced by buildings and uses that do not contribute to the betterment of the city and its citizens. The disappearance of the industrial heritage in Bilbao is irreparable. In many cases, these losses could have been avoided, focusing less on “newness,” supporting thoughtful initiatives in need of spaces, and creating of more permissive zoning regulations that would allow for uses different from the buildings’ original productive or administrative uses. Among the buildings still standing but in a deplorable state of decay, we can highlight the Molinos Vascos, a 1924 neo-Basque building designed by architect Federico de Ugalde y Echevarría. The former flour factory, with its five-story front to the river and characteristic fifteen silos, was the second reinforced concrete building in Bilbao. Designated a building of Cultural Interest in the category of Monument, Molinos Vascos remains a symbol of the past and the disinterest in thinking about its future. It is worth noting the remarkable work that the Asociación Vasca de Patrimonio Industrial y Obra Pública (Basque Association of Industrial Heritage and Public Works) has been doing to preserve and raise awareness about the value of all these buildings and structures. Similarly, the exhibition “Identitatearen Eraisteak/Derribos de la Identidad” (Demolition of an Identity), curated by the Bilbao-born architect Patxi Eguiluz and organized by the Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos Vasco-Navarro (Basque/Navarre Association of Architects) in 2015 presented a series of invaluable buildings that were destroyed in the transformation of the city, many of industrial character. The exhibition included many buildings that were protected by landmark designations that, however, did not impede their destruction, showcasing the inefficiency of the system and the permissiveness of the public institutions.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 12

Grandes Molinos Vascos, Bilbao, Spain, 2017. © Iker Gil.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 13

Grandes Molinos Vascos, Bilbao, Spain, 2017. © Iker Gil.

As we can see, the situation of the industrial heritage in Bilbao and Chicago, and frankly, many other cities in the world, have more in common when we talk about demolition than one would hope. Luckily, some cities with an important industrial architectural legacy offer paths to not only preserve them but to create important spaces of memory, culture, community, and leisure. One of them is the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, Germany, part of the network of sites included in the European Route of Industrial Heritage. The complex has also been part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 2001. The complex has maintained the entire set of infrastructures related to coal extraction, including several buildings for the manipulation of coal, railyards, miner housing, as well as commercial and service buildings. Besides being a reminder of the importance of coal activity in the past, it is also the home of new activities such as a design museum, studios for artist, offices, restaurants, and during the summer it hosts numerous events.

In Red Hook, NYC, we find the nonprofit organization Pioneer Works. The organization was established after the purchase and renovation of an 1866 industrial building whose tenant manufactured railroad tracks and other large-scale machinery. The cultural center envisioned by artist Dustin Yellin opened in 2012 and develops programs focused on encouraging interdisciplinary ideas related to art and science. Featured programs include science labs, 3D printing labs, a recording studio, a darkroom, galleries, art studios, galleries, garden, a bookstore and even a press. In the main space you can enjoy diverse programming, from temporary exhibitions and workshops to lectures, concerts, and a multitude of free activities. Since its opening almost a decade ago, it has become a destination for the local community, the city at large, and those visiting NYC.

Recently, Chicago-based architecture office Wheeler Kearns Architects renovated a former 63,000-square-foot Kraft Foods Plant in Bentonville, Arkansas, into The Momentary, a contemporary art space for visual, performing, and culinary arts. A satellite to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the space founded by the Walton family opened in 2020 with a multidisciplinary program that includes exhibition space, performance venues, and studio spaces that support an artist-in-residency program. Two years prior to the opening, Oklahoma-based artist Addie Roanhorse, a member of the Osage Nation, was selected as the first artist commissioned to create a work of art now on display at The Momentary. Overall, the adaptive reuse project overlaps social, cultural, and culinary activities with everyday life with the goal of enhancing the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas. The project has won The Architect’s Newspaper Best of Design Awards for Adaptive Reuse-Editors’ Picks.

Here in Chicago, we have had a few successes, some of them very recent such as the remarkable reuse of the Old Chicago Main Post Office, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. After sitting vacant for decades and with some failed attempts to reuse it, it finally opened to new tenants in the fall of 2019 after an extensive renovation led by Gensler. A decade earlier, the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center opened in the former coal-fired power plant, one of the four main buildings designed by Nimmons & Fellows and part of the Sears, Roebuck and Company facilities in North Lawndale. Designed in 1905 and decommissioned in 2004, the work of Farr Associates was named Project of the Year in the 2009 Richard H. Driehaus Preservation Awards. It is worth noting that these two successful examples are also of a scale that requires a large investment. That should not discourage exploring other opportunities to reuse many other buildings of much smaller scale and easier to tackle but of equal value.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 14

Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, Chicago, IL. © David Schalliol.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 15

Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, Chicago, IL. © David Schalliol.

Despite some successes, Chicago is losing its industrial heritage at an alarming rate. These are buildings that, while they might not appear in architecture guides, have an important role in the history of the city. Their spaces have unique qualities, are easily transformed into residential, commercial, or civic uses, and allow for the adaptive reuse of an existing and valuable heritage. Not everything needs to be saved, but there is no reason to demolish perfectly fine buildings that can be reused.

And the point to make here is that buildings are important for what can happen in them, for how they can provide a remarkable framework for things to happen. Local residents, community groups, architects, landscape architects, historians, ecologists, economists, those working in public administrations, and anybody interested in the future of their community can provide ideas, ambitions, and visions of how those buildings can contribute to their lives and the city, combining analysis, observation, and participation, defining a strong relationship between place and use. The opportunities are infinite when diverse voices and perspectives are included, and we all understand the value of these buildings. But we can’t afford to wait to consider the value of the industrial buildings once the demolition permit has been issued.

Chicago’s industry has shifted over the decades. The hard-working conditions that many people had to endure during their shifts do not have to be replicated or celebrated. However, the change in the type of industries does not require the destruction of the industrial fabric that has defined parts of the city. New uses and existing buildings are not mutually exclusive. They can complement each other, pushing the city forward in a successful and equitable way while maintain its character and qualities that have made Chicago what it is. The Chicago Union Station Power House provides an immediate opportunity to explore what we can envision for this valuable structure that has anchored this part of the city for nine decades. With a series of new residential and office buildings being built north of Bertrand Goldberg’s River City and a new neighborhood proposed across the River, this can become a great asset for the area and the city.

Mas observations 2021 an industrial legacy worth saving 16

Chicago Union Station Power House at night, Chicago, IL. © David Schalliol.