July 27, 2008

Underground Explorers Document Architectural Ruins

By Diane Toroian Keaggy, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jul. 27--Michael Allen checks his camera while Thomas Crone shoves Mace into his pocket. He doesn't expect to use it. Still, you never know who you'll meet in an abandoned building like the old Armour Packing Plant.

The two friends are underground explorers, a growing group of photographers, preservationists and daredevils who are fascinated by the region's architectural ruins. In their quest to chronicle our vanishing heritage, they encounter stray dogs, doped-up vagrants, angry demolition workers and, occasionally, the police. That's part of the fun.

"I'd just as soon not hear someone in the next room, but there is something exciting about that," said Crone, a writer and co-publisher of 52nd City magazine.

But for Allen, underground exploration is more than a thrill. It's an act of preservation, a way to save the buildings he has studied for Landmarks Association of St. Louis and his website, Ecology of Absence (www.eco-absence.org), a comprehensive guide to St. Louis' demolished and threatened buildings.

"This illicit documentation preserves a building in memory, at least," Allen said. "I've shot a lot of buildings that have disappeared soon after I've been in them."

Today, Allen and Crone have returned to the Armour Packing Plant in East St. Louis. The complex was abandoned about 50 years ago. But at one time, the National City Stockyards processed tens of thousands of cattle, hogs, sheep and calves daily. Allen and Crone are shooting pictures of the rusty turbines in the boiler room when Crone hears footsteps.

"The kind of person who would want to live in here is not the sort of person you would want to run into," said Allen, before moving on to the next building. There he explains how Henry Ford was inspired by the Armour assembly line and the region's role as the nation's hog capital.

"It may not be saved, but it's still worth knowing about a place where 4,500 people came to work every day and was an important piece of our industrial economy," Allen said. "It's very illuminating to look at these buildings. It's also serene just watching a man-made factory go back into the earth."

Allen follows a certain code when visiting buildings. He will not break into a building, nor will he take artifacts, except for paper documents.

"Unfortunately, there are people who take artifacts or do dumb stuff like throw things off buildings," Allen said. "One motto of a lot of urban explorers is to take only photographs, leave only footprints. Those artifacts belong with the place. It is stealing. I've actually hidden stuff that I thought might be taken."


Thanks to the Internet and digital photography, St. Louisans can visit shuttered shopping malls, demolished hospitals and crumbling schools. Allen posts his images on his website; Crone and other explorers post their images on the photo-sharing site Flickr.

One of the most comprehensive sites, Built Environment in Layman's Terms (www.tobybelt.blogspot.com), is published by professional photographer Toby Weiss. She expects someone, someday, will be grateful that underground explorers dared to document the city's architecture.

Her approach is different from Allen's; she'll bring a hard hat to demolition sites and cozy up to the work crew. In one case, she persuaded a real estate agent to allow her to shoot inside a midcentury modernist home. When the owner found out, she ordered Weiss' blog post removed. Ultimately, the new owner contacted Weiss; he wanted to preserve the home as it was.

"I've had people ask me why I'm here," Weiss said. "Once I explain what I'm doing, they are very grateful to have learned something. Where preservation sometimes gets a bad name is its approach. People are like, 'Stop telling us what to like. Stop telling us what we should do.' But I find if I share a story and a photograph, people will make up their own minds."


Crone counts himself among the converted. Sure, he always held a certain fascination for St. Louis architecture, but he never understood Armour's place in local and industrial history until today.

"There is a sadness that accompanies this," he said. "If you just thought about this building being gone or that building being gone, it would be too depressing. But I've come to appreciate new things about the built environment and our history.

"I mean, to the left there is the Gateway Arch, to the right is the Gateway racetrack. Ninety-nine percent of the people are going to pass by this place without a second thought. I don't want to sound elitist, but it's nice to be part of the 1 percent that slows down and looks."

As Crone and Allen return to Crone's car, a man pulls up in a pickup. He wants to know what they're doing out here. When he sees their cameras, he warns them to stay off the Armour site.

"Don't cross that road," he says sternly. "There's wild dogs over there."

"What's going on?" Crone asks Allen as the man pulls away.

Allen says, "We're not supposed to go over there."

"Definitely not," Crone says.

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