OVERVIEW: Damen Silos
The Damen Silos situated along the South Branch of the Chicago River have been an iconic part of Chicago industrial and agricultural history for over a century. Grain was one of the major industries upon which Chicago was built and the Damen Silos played a significant role in its success for over 70 years.
After processing millions of bushels of grain, the silos were closed in 1977. Following a long period of vacancy, the concrete structures enjoyed a second life in recent years as a film site and destination for unofficial urban tourism.
A recent decision by the State of Illinois to sell the Damen Silos and 23.4-acre riverfront site to a buyer with plans for demolition makes them highly threatened. The buyer’s asphalt plant in the heart of the Pershing Road Central Manufacturing District has become an acute environmental challenge confronting the McKinley Park community. Despite the highly noxious odors generated from asphalt production, the MAT Asphalt plant began operations in 2018 without any public meetings or public notice from elected officials or regulatory agencies and has been operating on an expired permit since 2019.
Chicagoans should not lose one of the last monumental landmarks to its agricultural industrial past. We recommend the consideration of the historic Damen Silos as part of a larger public amenity and reuse vision, which could include much-needed riverfront environmental restoration and recreational opportunities for nearby communities living on the Southwest Side, as well as Chicagoans across the city, and tourists.
HISTORY: Damen Silos
The Damen Silos were built in 1906 by Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad at the northeast corner of West 29th Street, on a 23.4-acre site along the Chicago River. The concrete grain silos replaced an earlier iteration, 30-foot towers constructed in the first half of the 19th century that were lost to fire. John Metcalf, an experienced civil engineer, designed a complex of 35 storage silos with vents and windows, a powerhouse, and an elevator. Additionally, the complex included driers, bleachers, oat clippers, cleaners, scourers, dust packers, and boilers fed by water from the Chicago River. It had a storage capacity of one million bushels of grain.
The silos provide a direct connection to Chicago’s historic grain industry and should be both recognized and protected. Grain was one of the major industries upon which Chicago was built. By the 1850s, Chicago had emerged as the grain capital of the world. The explosive growth of the wheat and grain production was made possible by two revolutionary agricultural inventions of the 1830s; John Deere’s steel plow and Cyrus Hall McCormick’s Mechanical Reaper. Chicago was surrounded by a ‘prairie sea’ comprised of very rich and very tough sod. The steel plow allowed Midwestern farmers to easily till the tough prairie soil and the McCormick Reaper allowed them to efficiently reap all that they had sowed. By 1854, Chicago the Chicago River emerged as the busiest grain port in the world. Grain spurred the growth of the railroads and commodities futures trading, both of which are represented by Chicago Union Station and the Chicago Board of Trade building. In fact, the 31-foot-tall statue which stands atop the Art Deco Chicago Board of Trade building is Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain with a sheaf of wheat in her left hand.
As poet Carl Sandburg wrote in his legendary poem “Chicago”:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders.
In use during the heyday of Chicago’s grain industry in the early 20th century, the silos remained lucrative despite occasional grain dust explosions. After rebuilding and expansion of capacity, the Santa Fe Silos were sold briefly to the Kellogg-Stratton Grain company before ownership was transferred to the State of Illinois in 1928. Grain storage at the site ended following a 1977 explosion.
More recently, the Illinois Department of Transportation used the site for mixing construction materials for state roads. In 2005, IDOT transferred the property to the Central Management Services for disposal. An earlier purchase deal reportedly fell through due to the cost of demolition, asbestos removal, and construction of a sea wall.
THREAT: Damen Silos
In August 2022, the State of Illinois issued an invitation-for-bid of sale which ended in October 2022. Four bids were reportedly received and the State of Illinois made the decision to sell the property to the highest bidder. Despite the protests and objections of local residents, as well as environmental and preservation organizations, the sale to Michael Tadin Jr. for $6.52 million was finalized in December 2022. Tadin is the owner of MAT Asphalt Company located in nearby McKinley Park which has recently come under scrutiny over environmental concerns. Reportedly, Tadin has envisioned demolition of the silos and environmental remediation in 2023, but has not revealed his intentions for the site.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Damen Silos
As acknowledged by Tadin, the concrete structures are an iconic part of Chicago history. With a backdrop of downtown’s skyscrapers, the 15-story silos on the Chicago River have been an unofficial visual landmark for decades. They are instantly recognizable after multiple uses in films and television shows, including Transformer: Age of Extinction. Additionally, the silos have become an unofficial destination for “urban tourism,” drawing urban explorers and street artists.
The sale by the State has been criticized as a flawed procedure, resulting in an irreplaceable riverfront setting being disposed of without a determination of its future use or input from surrounding neighborhoods. Neighboring communities such as Pilsen and McKinley Park that have already been subjected to industrial pollution now face uncertain adverse consequences from the planned demolition and unknown future uses. Given the owner’s disregard for community priorities and voices in McKinley Park, there is concern for the large riverfront site.
Furthermore, unlike abundant recreational opportunities available along the North Branch of the Chicago River, the anticipated industrial use of this site only exacerbates the lack of such amenities for Southwest Side residents along the South Branch. The South Branch and its surrounding neighborhoods desperately need more green space and river access which the 23-acre site could provide in the form of a recreational park that could include restored towers for climbing. Such a use could also recognize the long use of the abandoned site as a forum for street art, which has been recognized as an urban art form.
Chicagoans should not lose the last monumental landmark to its agricultural industrial past. We recommend the consideration of the historic Damen Silos as an urban climbing and street art site, with much-needed riverfront environmental restoration and recreational opportunities for all communities.