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Damen Silos

The Damen Silos, originally called the Santa Fe Elevator, have loomed large over Chicago’s Southwest Side for more than 100 years. The building’s new owner, MAT asphalt, has said it plans to demolish the structures.

Justine Tobiasz

The Damen Silos -- now at the center of demolition drama -- have a colorful history

If you’ve ever driven on the Stevenson Expressway or taken a ride on the Orange Line, you may have seen these concrete towers — originally known as the Santa Fe Elevator — looming to the north, just east of Damen Avenue. Constructed in 1906 and 1933, the buildings, now called the Damen Silos, haven’t had any grain stacked inside them since the 1970s.

Grain elevators were Chicago’s first skyscrapers. And they helped the city become an economic powerhouse. But only a handful are still standing.

Damen Silos with wrecking crane

Damen Silos pictured on Sept. 13, 2023, with a crane from Heneghan Wrecking Company. Environmentalists and local residents and preservationists have raised concerns about the environmental impact of a planned demolition, while some preservationists argue the buildings should be considered for landmark status.

Manuel Martinez

A dominant feature of Chicago more than a century ago, they are now attracting attention again, on the slate for demolition yet stirring a frenzy of emotion among architectural preservationists and neighborhood residents who want a say in their fate.

Michael Tadin Jr., co-owner of MAT Asphalt, bought the 23-acre property from the state of Illinois last year, saying he plans to tear down the massive structure. Environmentalists and local Southwest Side residents are concerned about the demolition — and how the property might be used in the future — while the Preservation Chicago group wants the city to consider making the old grain elevator into a landmark.

“We’d like to see this remarkable component of Chicago’s lost industrial history repurposed in some way, along with the adjacent land,” said Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago’s executive director. The permit for demolition is still under review by the city, according to a spokesperson for the mayor. The planning department said it has not received a formal public landmark request.

The silos have a backstory with all the elements of Chicago intrigue: fires, financial misdealings, worker deaths in the early years and, in more recent decades, serving as a setting for gonzo artmaking and for a big purchase by a politically connected family. Today, their future poses a big question for Chicago. A few other cities have repurposed similar structures; most have torn theirs down.

A technological innovation that changed a city

Damen Silos 1948

The silos stand in the backdrop of this May 1948 historical photo of Chicago railyards at 27th and Ashland. The silos operated at a place where waterways and rail lines came together, contributing to their role as a turn-of-the-century economic engine.

Photoduplication Department/THE NEWBERRY LIBRARY, Chicago, I

The Santa Fe Elevator was one of more than 110 grain elevators built in Chicago between 1838 and 1959, according to a Journal of Urban History article by Thomas Leslie.

When Carl Sandburg wrote the phrase “stacker of wheat” in his beloved poem “Chicago” in 1914, it’s possible he was thinking of the men who hoisted heavy bags of wheat in Chicago’s early years. But a more efficient method of handling grain was developed in 1842, when the first steam-powered grain elevator started operating in Buffalo, New York.

Chicago soon embraced this technology, which lifted grain from boats or trains with scoops moving up a conveyor belt to the top of the structure, where it was dumped into silos. Later, the grain was poured out of those silos — using the force of gravity instead of backbreaking physical labor — into boats or trains, to be transported somewhere else.

In the 1850s, Chicago refined its elevator system “beyond that of any other city,” William Cronon wrote in his 1991 book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. The city’s elevators were at the heart of a worldwide transformation in grain distribution and marketing.

“They allowed the city to absorb all the grain from the Midwest and store it until it could get put onto boats and trains heading to markets in the east,” Leslie, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told WBEZ in a recent interview.

skyline through damen silos

While the silos have been out of operation since 1977, the site has invited creative reuse from artists, filmmakers and activists. Among other projects, the site is featured in director Michael Bay’s 2014 film, ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction.’

Manuel Martinez

Chicago became the dominant hub for agricultural exchange in the central United States. And the Chicago Board of Trade developed a system for sorting grains into bins based on quality. Grains grown by various farmers were poured together into the appropriate silos. Merchants no longer purchased wheat or corn from an individual farmer — instead, they bought quantities of a certain grade.

“Because the quality was reliable,” Leslie said, “it meant that you could buy and sell futures” — in other words, contracts setting the price for a delivery of grain at a future date. And that system, he explained, “created this gigantic financial market that has been headquartered in Chicago ever since.”

Interior of grain silo

Illustration of interior of grain silo taken from a 1911 publication titled “The Design of Walls, Bins and Grain Elevators” by Milo S. Ketchum.

Along with church spires, grain elevators were the tallest points in the city’s mid-19th-century skyline. But not everyone found them attractive. After the English novelist Anthony Trollope saw elevators in Chicago and Buffalo in 1861, he wrote: “An elevator is as ugly a monster as has been yet produced.” Nevertheless, Trollope was impressed by what these monstrous mechanical structures accomplished, observing how “rivers of corn are running through these buildings night and day.”

Early grain elevators were made of wood, making them vulnerable to fires. When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway built its elevator in 1906 — the one known today as the Damen Silos — it was replacing a wooden structure that had burned down at a nearby site. To build an elevator that would last, the railroad worked with Quebec native John S. Metcalf, who had patented a new method for pouring concrete.

“Metcalf’s invention, slip forming, means that you can build that shape really quickly,” Leslie said. “You build one form that’s a few feet tall. At the base, you pour concrete into that. And then as the concrete cures, the form can actually climb up the cylinder that’s just been formed. And you can then pour another layer of concrete.”

Leslie, whose books include the new Chicago Skyscrapers, 1934-1986, said the same system is used to build many of today’s high-rises. “They became the template for grain silos throughout the country,” Leslie said. “The drawings were published in engineering journals.”

With a capacity of 1.3 million bushels, the Santa Fe Elevator operated at a place where waterways and rail lines came together, near the juncture where the Chicago River’s South Branch flows into the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, which had been completed in 1900, reversing the river’s direction and connecting it with the Mississippi River’s watershed. The older Illinois & Michigan Canal was just south. And a dozen or so railway spurs sat just east, along a river inlet called the Santa Fe Slip.

That geography helps explain how the Santa Fe Elevator and its vicinity became one of Chicago’s busiest locations for loading boats and trains.

Looking West from Damen Silos

The area surrounding the Damen Silos has long been a central site of industry in Chicago. Waterways and rail lines come together at the juncture of the where the Chicago River’s South Branch meets in the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal.

Manuel Martinez

The Armour Grain Co. leased and operated the elevator from 1908 until 1927, when authorities charged the company with falsifying records about the quality of grain stored in its silos. “The stock book of the Santa Fe elevator mysteriously disappeared,” an investigator reported.

In 1928, as the elevator operated under new management, the state bought the property, intending to create a barge terminal. But those plans were scuttled by a lack of funding during the Great Depression.

Then, on Dec. 23, 1932, the Santa Fe Elevator’s workhouse burst into flames. “I heard a big explosion and then about three more quick ones in a row,” worker Charles Cerny told the Chicago Daily News. “The fire was through the whole elevator in almost no time, and some of the fellows did not have a chance to get out.”

Two men died in the fire, which destroyed the workhouse’s wood-and-steel structure. But the adjacent concrete silos survived, and they’re still standing today. Replacing the workhouse next to the river, a new concrete building was constructed in 1933.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Santa Fe Slip

Aerial views from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps in 1911 (left) and 1950 (right) illustrate how the surrounding industrial area developed in the first decades of the 20th century.

Life stirs in a zombie high-rise

Grain elevators were still a big part of Chicago’s economy in the decades after, but they ultimately fell into decline. “The real blow to Chicago’s grain elevators was the interstate highway system,” Leslie said. Grain no longer had to go through one distribution point in Chicago — trucks could haul it to a variety of destinations.

The Damen Silos shut down in 1977, and they’ve been vacant and unused ever since — officially, anyway. In spite of “no trespassing” signs, some people have visited and photographed the silos. Using an abbreviation for “urban exploration,” a video on YouTube asks if the site is “Chicago’s Most Popular URBEX Spot.”

A short documentary posted on Vimeo in 2012 portrays David “Gone” Brault, a 23-year-old who was living in the silos at that time, practicing survivalist skills. “This is the postapocalypse park,” he says in the video, which shows his book-filled makeshift bedroom and the flower planters he carefully tended during his residence there. At another point, Brault remarks: “My favorite piece of graffiti on the building says, ‘One day the whole city will be this beautiful.’ ”

Reflections at Damen Silos

The silos are easily recognizable to travelers coming in and out of town via nearby Midway Airport or riders on the CTA Orange Line.

Manuel Martinez

Graffiti artists have used the abandoned structure as a canvas.

“It’s a place where anyone can go practice, and there’s no rules, and you can take your time,” a street artist known as Werm told the Sun-Times in 2021. Another artist, Emte, told the newspaper that he had helped transform the silos into “a super-dope unsanctioned museum.”

Director Michael Bay used the silos in his 2014 movie Transformers: Age of Extinction. As points out, the scene supposedly happens in Hong Kong, and the silos are covered with Chinese characters — but the filmmakers neglected to remove Willis Tower from the background skyline.

In 2022, Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration put the property up for sale. Tadin and his family were the highest bidders, buying the land for $6.5 million. Tadin has said he intends to redevelop the property, but hasn’t announced specific plans. Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago both put the Damen Silos on their lists of this year’s most endangered historic places.

If the silos survive, it may be challenging to find a new use for the structures, said Bob Frame, a senior historian for the Mead & Hunt engineering firm in Minnesota. Frame helped preservation groups look for similar solutions when a set of grain elevators faced demolition in Minneapolis in the 1980s.

“We concluded that they certainly could be reused,” he said. “But in the end, they were demolished anyway.”

One major problem is the darkness inside windowless silos.

“How do you get light?” Frame said. “Well, cut into the wall of the bin.”

That’s how windows were added to a silo complex in Akron, Ohio, transforming the structure into the Quaker Square Inn, which now serves as a University of Akron dorm. Windows were also cut in the walls of a Minneapolis grain elevator to create the Calhoun Isles condominiums. In Cape Town, South Africa, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa remade silos into spaces for art galleries.

But if historic preservation is the main goal, adding windows might be too significant of a change, Frame said. “You’re not supposed to alter the structure, if possible,” he said.

South Africa Cape Town Art Installation

Experts say it is challenging to preserve grain elevators due to cost and their architectural peculiarities. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town, South Africa, pictured here in 2022, is an example of creative reuse of vacant silos.

Nardus Engelbrecht

While such projects are costly to accomplish, Frame pointed out it’s also difficult to demolish grain elevators, which could strengthen the argument for preserving them. “It’s very, very expensive to take them down,” he said.

Another grain elevator built around the same time as the Damen Silos, the Washburn-Crosby Elevator No. 1, is an iconic sight in the mill district along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Historical Society bought and preserved the structure, allowing it to continue standing — in spite of the fact that it remains empty — while opening the Mill City Museum in the ruins of an adjacent flour mill.

“The museum in Minneapolis is really great,” Leslie said. “That’s a really smart way to rethink what that kind of structure can be.”

Leslie suggested the Damen Silos property could be used as a riverfront park, with the preserved elevator as the centerpiece. “If you look at Rome’s Aqueduct Park, it’s just a giant open space that … has the remains of these aqueducts running through it,” he said. “Those artifacts kind of energize the park.”

The Damen Silos stand roughly 400 feet away from the southwest end of the Canalport Riverwalk Park, which runs from Ashland Avenue to the Santa Fe Slip, where boats and trains used to haul corn and wheat.

“It’d be great to connect this to other green spaces and riverfront trails,” Preservation Chicago’s Miller said. “It’s a great opportunity to talk about Chicago’s industrial past. If they’re demolished and pulverized, those stories are lost.”

Robert Loerzel is a journalist based in Chicago. Archival photo research provided by WBEZ’s Justine Tobiasz.

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