Inside Chicago's Most Mysterious Property
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It’s been the site of countless explosions, both real and staged for Transformers: Age of Extinction. Thanks to photos from a Bisnow source, we’re taking you inside the Southwest Side’s Damen Silos for a look at the property’s more than 100-year history and unique, graffiti-tinged evolution.
Grain elevators’ histories are often marred with explosions (something about the dust mixed with oxygen), and one such spontaneous combustion on these 24 acres led to the current John Metcalf-designed “Damen Silos” property, formerly the Santa Fe Railroad Grain Elevator, built in 1906 at 2900 S Damen off the South Branch of the Chicago River. Keep in mind the staggering presence of 35 80-foot silos in the pre-skyscraper era. They churned out 400,000 bushels thanks to machines running on 1,500 horsepower (from steam and electricity). Unfortunately while users changed (Stratton Grain Co was up next), explosions continued.
It’s a Risky Business
The facility’s capacity doubled to 800,000 bushels when it was rebuilt after a 1932 deadly blast, but Chicago’s grain reign was over thanks to a series of fires around the city (including at the 1.6 million-bushel Rosenbaum elevator on Goose Island, whose future now seems decidedly more software focused). It’s a shame Chicago didn’t have its tech mecca reputation back when the grain industry needed more fireproofing strategies. The state has been sitting on the Damen Silos since a 1977 disaster rendered the property functionally obsolete, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t served other artistic purposes (as evidenced by this series of photos).
Abandonment Breeds Innovation
The property’s been a fertile stomping ground for the street art and photography set for years. Brent Bandemer's 2012 short film “Gone” documents the life of David “Gone” Brault, a 23-year-old suspended college student squatting at the Damen Silos to teach others how to survive when the apocalypse comes. (Understandable, given the silos’ arty End of Days vibe, and where Chicago apartment rents are headed.) As David’s favorite graffiti on the property says, “One day the whole city will be this beautiful.” In 2013 it was a filming location for Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, whose special effects hit eerily close to home.
Nobody’s Shelled Out The Cash
The state’s Department of Central Management Services, through Rick Levin & Associates, failed to find a buyer for the property in an ’07 auction (these things are pricey to demolish), when the minimum bid was $17.3M, and last November it planned to try the auction process again with a drastically lower minimum of $3.8M. But that auction was postponed, a CMS spokeswoman tells us, a decision made by the outgoing administration. Appraisals and fair market value are still in place, though, making it ready to hit the auction block again if the new powers that be decide to pull the trigger (which is likely, she says).
Creative Conversions Ahead?
The state’s only remaining vacant land in Chicago, the property’s location (with Chicago River frontage and access to interstate travel) should be its biggest selling point, says the CMS spokeswoman, along with lots of land to play with for industrial redevelopment. Looking at other grain elevators around the world, you’ll find creative adaptive reuse strategies ranging from residential to office to data centers to artsy (they work well as both canvases and projection screens). A distributor who needs water and highway access would be more practical, though probably not as pretty.
Do you have photos of Chicago’s other mysterious commercial properties with fascinating histories? We want to see them! Send pics to email@example.com.