|contemporary drawing from 1911 book by Milo Smith Ketchum
|photograph: Digital Collection, New York Public Library, Wikipedia
|from Harper's Weekly, October 28, 1871
While grain in itself isn't especially combustible, grain dust and oxygen form a volatile mix, and elevator explosions were the result. The complex along Damen owes its existence to just such an explosion. Its predecessor elevator, along the river a bit to the east at 27th and Wood, was a five-story, 400 feet wide and 175 feet long frame structure covered in corrugated sheet iron. Its 60 bins could hold a million and a half bushels. In September of 1905, a spontaneous combustion at the top of one of the wheat bins had the elevator engulfed in flames before the first fire truck even arrived. The elevator was destroyed at a loss of $300,000 for the building and another $500,000 for the 845,000 bushels of overly-toasted grain - staggering sums for that time.
A new elevator, designed by John S. Metcalf, was built the next year to the west, at the Damen Avenue location. In addition to the 35 storage silos with a capacity of one million bushels, there was the tall elevator, a long-vanished 165-foot-high smokestack, and a powerhouse whose boilers drew filtered water from the river to generate the 1,500 horsepower of steam and electricity that powered the elevator's operations. There was room for 60 rail cars on site, and another 300 a short distance away.
|photograph: Library of Congress
It opened the next year, even as another disastrous fire destroyed the Rosenbaum elevator on Goose Island, and 1.6 million bushels of with it. It was one a succession of fires that cut the city's capacity by 8.5 million bushels. Spurred by lower wage costs elsewhere, Chicago's status as the country's largest grain storage center was over. The city's capacity of 50 million bushels was little more than half Minneapolis's 90 million. It was also exceeded by Kansas City's 60 million, and matched by Duluth, Superior and Buffalo. Too bad Chicago, the city of architectural innovation, never got around to putting up one of Frei Otto's tensile silos from 1959 . . .
Today, in Buffalo and elsewhere, huge, abandoned grain elevators litter the country. Some have been converted to other use.
|photograph: Dcamp314, Wikipedia
massive explosion and fire in 1977, the same year there was a disastrous explosion at the Garvey Grain Elevator at 93rd and the Calumet River, a half-million-dollar fire that claimed the lives of two workers.
As related in a article by New City's David Witter, the State of Illinois recently held an auction to try to offload the property, but no buyer came forward with the minimum $17 million price. A spokesperson for the Rick Levin auction house told Witter the ask is now down to $11 million.
report by Ryan Ori of Crain's, a deal to convert it into a $1 billion data center fell through late in July.)Wrapping around it is the Canalport Riverwalk Park, a largely undiscovered gem completed in the 1990's on the peninsula just east of the one on which the Santa Fe Grain Elevator stands.
produce exchange that was previously at Fugard and Knapp's 1924 South Water Market on Racine, which was converted in the first decade of the new century into University Commons, an 800+ unit residential complex.
And then, as you turn the corner on the River Walk, you're faced with this . . .
|photograph: Library of Congress
In a number of cities, grain elevators have been used as giant screens for spectacular video projections, most notably in Quebec City, where noted stage designer Robert Lepage and his production company Ex Machina transformed the city's Burge grain silos into The Image Mill, an 1,800 foot-wide projection that was so popular during its 2008 debut that it's been revived every summer since.
The Image Mill / Le Moulin à Images from SAGA on Vimeo.
A similar, if less ambitious program also took place at one of Buffalo's elevators, part of the city's general waterfront revival . . .
If Chicago can set its river on fire, as Redmoon Theater is scheduled to do in October of 2014 . . .
More photos, after the break . . .