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Lost and found

When a building’s original story line comes to a close, its next chapter must be written

LOST Sep-Oct 2019

1440px G R Fardon British Montgomery Block Montgomery Street Google Art Project

Montgomery Block, about 1865.

Photo by G. R. Fardon

Every community has a building that tells its story. The place where things were made, original ideas were sprouted and spread, and individuals discovered their role in the larger whole. These structures dot the American landscape as markers of our collective progress. Their pores are clogged with the community’s sense of self-worth, and their health is a reflection of our own health.

Buildings shouldn’t be preserved in formaldehyde. But discarding the buildings that reveal our nation’s history, with all their patina and rust, isn’t the solution, either. The infrastructure that we have is here to stay, even if the enterprise that once occupied its space is obsolete. The architecture of the future must focus on transformation. It must desurface the potential in our existing built environment with a respect for the past and an eye to the future.

Montgomery Block interior, 1958.
Photo courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey.

Montgomery Block was the first building in San Francisco’s history designed with fire and earthquakes in mind. It seemed superfluous in 1853 when hundreds of Chinese immigrants dug a crater in the earth for the building’s foundation to rest atop a bed of timbers. But in 1906, its wisdom was revealed, as the Block stood intact and the city around it lay ruined by a massive earthquake.

The Block was a stucco-clad megalith. It had repetitive picture frame windows, an exaggerated cornice, and a courtyard punched into its interior core. Its base was a retail center with three floors of residential units stacked on top. In the early days, the rent was high and attracted professionals. As the city grew and its demographics changed, the suits moved out and artists moved in, converting the units into studios. The confines were cozy and that beget a culture of creative cross-pollination. A scene emerged inside the Block and radiated onto the surrounding neighborhood. At different points in a time frame spanning from the Progressive Era to the New Deal, artists from the likes of Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Frida Kahlo, and Dorothea Lange lived at Montgomery Block or in the surrounding art district that it spawned.

Montgomery Block was demolished in 1959. The iconic needle in the city’s skyline, the Transamerica Pyramid, pierces through its ghost. As striking and iconic as the Pyramid is, it is surrounded by a cluster of lifeless copycats. It anchors a San Francisco that’s haunted by an inability to maintain affordable housing or a diverse, independent culture that was conjured by its predecessor.

Like Montgomery Block before it, Detroit’s Packard Automotive Plant was cut from the same forward-thinking cloth.

The Packard Plant broke the model of factory construction for the time and, in the process, created a new mold. In the early 1900s, architect Albert Kahn had already designed nine wood structures for the complex, but for the 10th, he employed a system of reinforced concrete that was invented and patented by his brother, Julius. The “Kahn system” angled steel-reinforcement bars at 45 degrees, enabling enormous spans of concrete and allowing for an open floor plan that was infrequently interrupted by the presence of columns. At the building’s perimeter, these long spanning beams were infilled with enormous glass windows that funneled in natural light and cross ventilation. From the roof, glass monitors allowed overhead light to wash the work space.

Within the walls of the factory, men assembled car frames, while women covered and stuffed the frames of the car’s seats. As time passed and America found its way into not one, but two world wars, the factory lessened automotive production in favor of air and naval engines. The men went abroad to fight, while the women proved their aptitude at running the factory and overseeing production.

Outside the factory walls, an infrastructure supporting the workers popped up around the complex, with houses, churches, restaurants, watering holes, and every other cornerstone of a healthy community. The workers may not have been able to purchase the luxury cars that they made, but they and those living in the surrounding community—so many of whom were originally from Eastern Europe, the Jim Crow South, or the far reaches of Appalachia—managed to carve out an exemplary living for themselves.

That American Dream seems galaxies away from the Packard Plant of today. Major industry is long gone. And now, like so many other things in the city of Detroit, the plant is completely vacant. Its brick and concrete are crumbling, its windows are busted out, its copper has been scrapped. Its gargantuan structure seemingly floats on a cloud of debris. One side of the complex is bounded by a railroad, another by a six-lane interstate, and the other two by a neighborhood where the few kept-up houses stand in stark contrast to the backdrop of feral greenery. The plant’s withering appearance is taunting; but, unlike Montgomery Block, it still remains: dormant and in desperate need of a push.

After Sprague Electric / Before MASS MoCA. View from Marshall St. bridge, 1988, buildings 1,2,4,5.
Photo by Nicholas Whitman

The Arnold Print Works backstory runs parallel to that of the Packard Plant.

Arnold Print Works constructed a 25-building mill complex between 1860 and 1900 in the center of North Adams, Massachusetts. The buildings followed the shape of the peninsula where two branches of the Hoosic River converged. They exemplify New England mill design and engineering. Southern yellow pine, red brick, and local limestone came together, supported by thousands of wood beams and columns. Natural light and space were abundant, as were residents of North Adams, almost one-quarter of whom produced printed textiles at the mill. The buildings were connected by second-floor bridges and ramps. Man-made extensions of the river flowed beneath to assist the dyeing and finishing of textiles.

The Print Works closed in 1942 and was replaced with the operations of Sprague Electric, which made significant structural interventions to support the manufacturing of transistors, resistors, and capacitors—some of which were used in launching systems for moon landings. Sprague employed the sons and daughters of Arnold workers. As electric light pervaded, holes were cut into floors and natural light wells were closed up, and layers of paint were added to already existing layers

Just like Arnold before it, Sprague fell victim to competition from cheaper labor elsewhere and closed its operations in 1986. Acres of concrete, brick, stone, and wood on the island in the city center were abandoned. Thousands of jobs were lost.

Fast-forward to 2019. The Arnold-Sprague complex has been transformed into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), one of the largest contemporary art museums in the United States. With space as an asset, a series of impossibly large galleries were sculpted from the bones of the mill-factory. Light wells were rediscovered, entire floors were dramatically removed, bridges and tunnels connect places for large-scale art installations. Huge windows were cut into façades, and surreal, winding stairways connect vertically. Performing arts happen in between and around the visual art, drawing visitors to the region amid a wave of creative lodging and dining options.

MASS MoCA gallery.
Photo by Alexandra Mandelkorn.

MASS MoCA has reinvented itself through art. The Swift Factory hopes to do the same through food production and entrepreneurship.

At its peak, the Swift Factory employed roughly 300 Hartford, Connecticut, residents, and its signature gold leaf gilded the dome of the Connecticut State Capitol two miles to its south. But as time passed, production waned, and the surrounding neighborhood suffered deeply from redlining and white flight. As crime intensified outside, street-facing window panes were replaced with cloudy fiberglass panels to deflect projectiles and focus inward. The factory closed its doors in 2005, and more than a decade later, nearly half of northeast Hartford lives below the poverty line and one-quarter are unemployed. In the midst of a major renovation, the Swift Factory hopes to mend these statistics. Areas for creative and entrepreneurial opportunities have been designated, but food production is the primary tenant because it offers jobs that are attainable for high school dropouts and ex–drug offenders. The architectural transformation focuses on repairing the neglected factory to its original character. New transparent windows have been installed in all openings, and, for the first time in decades, the Swift Factory is a cordial neighbor to northeast Hartford.

Unlike the aforementioned factories, the built fabric of Miami’s Wynwood district was substandard. Rows of nearly identical, windowless warehouses lined the streets of a dangerous and downtrodden former garment district. But in the early 2000s, developers invested in the abandoned repositories and marketed the cheap rents to artists and other creators. Local and international artists were invited to Wynwood to paint the miles of blank façades, while bars, restaurants, shops, and galleries blossomed within the walls of the murals. Today, outsiders flock to the area to get lost in the maze of accessible art and to support local businesses. The investment in Wynwood has doused lifeless walls with the flash and vibrancy of Miami.

Kansas City also recast a plane of nothingness into a place to engage with the city. On the rooftop of an everyday downtown parking garage, a lone boxcar rests in a sea of prairie grass. The Prairie Logic project is like occupying an Andrew Wyeth painting or a Willa Cather novel amid a jungle of glass high-rises. The prairie is something between a garden and a plaza. The boxcar is intended to be a sculpture memorializing the city’s history as a railroad hub. Its sliding door can be opened and become a performance stage. Prairie Logic exhibits the potential for beauty in ubiquitously banal spaces.

In 2007, the City of McAllen, Texas, found itself burdened with the prototype of ubiquitous banality, an abandoned Walmart. With limited resources, the City couldn’t level the Walmart, so it decided to relocate its undersized library into the store. Using the endless square footage, the essentials of a traditional library were generously arranged. Still, the Walmart offered plenty of surplus. Architects designated areas for children to play, teenagers to congregate, and immigrants in this border city to attend English as a second language, or ESL, and citizenship classes. Materials and color help differentiate spaces, orient patrons, and soften the utilitarian qualities. The library operates as much as a community center as a place to borrow books. From the skeleton of a big box, it pioneers the possibilities of the 21st-century library.

Belle Isle bridge.
Photo by Mason Sanders

No place’s rock bottom is as dystopian as Belle Isle in Richmond, Virginia. Once a Civil War prison camp, Union soldiers suffered the horrors of war in the heart of the Confederate capital. Following the war, the island was quarantined from the city by a hydroelectric power plant that used the island’s positioning in the belly of the James River. Today, an undulating pedestrian bridge suspended from the underside of a massive interstate bridge invites citizens from throughout the city to enjoy Belle Isle’s offerings. They come to wade in its waters, sun on its rocks, walk and bike its trails, and explore its decrepit structures. Belle Isle is shrouded by the city. It’s a meeting space of Richmond’s citizens, its natural beauty, and its city infrastructure. It offers itself to all and encourages all to use it as they please. The pain of its past heals with its inclusiveness and the hands of time.

Across America, there are buildings that have the capacity to live beyond the stories of their past. But like all precious things, they need love and to be shown that they matter.

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