The Historic Carmel Grain Elevator – An Essay

The Carmel Grain Elevator
(Progress, Ingenuity, Innovation, Economic Development, Architecture and the Arts)

Ron Kern
March 12, 2012

Carmel’s grain elevator – so what’s the big deal?  It is just an eyesore that needs to go away so we can have progress, right?  Progress, ingenuity, innovation, economic development, architecture, the arts, these are thing that, in Carmel, we pride ourselves in.  In fact, we’ve centered our future and invested upon these ideals.

The big deal is that Carmel’s historic grain elevator embodies all of these very same ideals that we are using to move Carmel into and through this century.

The grain elevator is Carmel’s greatest remaining historic asset.  It reminds us of a time when Carmel was a small farming community, its own community, not a suburb of a metropolitan area.  The grain elevator was a economic development tool, an innovation that made it much more efficient to process farmer’s harvests to the market and thereby giving Carmel life.  While it may seem insignificant to us today, this towering slab of concrete via the railroad system, helped feed our communities and provided jobs.  Without the grain elevator, Carmel would have been a very different place.  Would it even have continued to exist?  With it, Carmel had progress.

Our expanding roadway system eventually led to the railways becoming less efficient and definitely less convenient for transporting grain.  This drove many of the grain elevators out of business as the new system yielded a more consolidated approach to gathering the harvest.  Corporate farming was the last nail in the coffin for many grain elevator operations.  Scores of small towns were hurt greatly when the grain elevators eventually shut down.  I examined this phenomenon in a small town Indiana photographic project in the mid-1990s.

The grain elevator itself is a pinnacle of American ingenuity and achievement.  It was designed and constructed with regard to need and function.  No formal school of architecture taught the Midwest American engineer how to design such a structure.  Grain elevators became a beacon of a coming age.  They inspired Modernist architects and artists into a design awakening of unadorned classicism.  To name a few, America’s grain elevators inspired architects such as Sullivan, Richardson and Wright here in the United States and Behrens, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe of Germany, Elial Saarinen of Finland and Le Corbusier of France.

In fact Le Corbusier, one of the world’s great architects and writers, in his seminal book “Towards a New Architecture,” grain elevators are featured prominently in the section of the book, Three Reminders to Architects, Part 1 Mass.  Please bear with me while I quote the last portion of the this section where Le Corbusier summarizes the significance of the design of the grain elevator’s inspiration to architecture:

“Not in pursuit of an architectural idea, but simply guided by the results of calculation and the conception of a LIVING ORGANISM, the ENGINEERS of to-day make use of the primary elements and, by co-ordinating them in accordance with the rules, provoke in us architectural emotions and thus make the work of man ring in unison with universal order.
     Thus we have the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent FIRST-FRUITS of the new age. THE AMERICAN ENGINEERS OVERWHELM WITH THEIR CALCULATION OUR EXPIRING ARCHITECTURE.

It is obvious from Le Corbusier’s writing that the grain elevator was a major inspiration for modern architecture’s awakening.

A great many modern artists have been inspired by grain elevators.  One example is Charles Demuth’s masterpiece, “My Egypt.”  Demuth considered grain elevators a modern equivalent to the Pyramids.

Many photographers have been inspired by grain elevators.  Renowned photographer Frank Gohlke has made photographing Midwest and Great Plains grain elevators a significant part of his career.  This work resulted in exhibitions at major museums; for example the 1978 exhibition “Grain Elevators” was hosted at The Museum of Modern Art and traveled across the United States through 1980.  In 1992 The Johns Hopkins University Press published the acclaimed book of Gohlke’s grain elevator photographs, “Measures of Emptiness:  Grain Elevators in the American Landscape (Creating the North American Landscape.”

Carmel’s grain elevator is truly an excellent example of that which inspired the modernists.  Its somewhat large scale is well proportioned and its form varies from side to side.  Having such a wonderful example in such a small town speaks to the fact that Carmel was indeed an important location within the agricultural community.

The grain elevator has been an inspiration for my photography.  I have photographed it for many years.  This past January and February a recent photograph of the grain elevator was an anchor image for an exhibition of my year long photography project entitled, “Truth From Perceptions.”

Carmel desires to be and is working toward being an art-centric community.  It is forging its own identity and is becoming it’s own city rather than being a suburban bedroom community.  So, in some ways Carmel has come around full circle since its early days when Carmel was its own community among the farm fields, along the railroad line where the grain elevator was a central part of its economy and gave the town life.

As I mentioned previously, Carmel’s historic grain elevator embodies the exact same ideals that Carmel has invested in to make our community great now and in the future.  It indeed is an excellent example of modern American architecture.

Demolishing our grain elevator will be a major blow to Carmel’s image of being a community that is serious about being invested in the arts.  Demolishing such an important, significant structure steeped in history with regard to our community and the arts, I fear, will validate the view that Carmel is not to be taken seriously within the arts community.

I see the reuse of our grain elevator as an opportunity for our community.  One idea is to incorporate an observation deck into the reuse.  Imagine being able to see the contemporary success and progress of our city in the area of Carmel’s original town from a structure that harkens back to, and reminds us of, our history.

Our grain elevator is a huge opportunity to get public buy-in for historic preservation.  Recently the Carmel City Council passed, and the Mayor signed into law, an historic preservation ordinance.  There is not a more obvious place to start this process than at our historic grain elevator.  Community pride in Carmel’s history would result in an engaged community that appreciates and learns about its roots from which a part of our identity is generated for both newcomers and old-timers alike.

Utilizing our grain elevator as a community gathering site would appeal to a diverse demographic which is imperative for the health of our community.  Day to day it would be a non-consumer oriented inclusive gathering place.  It is in an excellent location with the Arts and Design District and is easily seen from quite a distance.  Many different functions could be held at the grain elevator site, music performances, arts festivals, community meetings, etc. For example – where is the high school jazz group playing this Thursday evening?  At the grain elevator – no further directions would be required.  It is a perfect place for the Carmel Clay Historical Society to hold events such as arts programs for kids and adults alike.  For festivals streets would not have to be blocked off and parking would be plentiful.  To get to a festival or function just a short walk to and on the Monon Trail would be all it would take.

I have lived in the Carmel area for approximately fifty years.  Yes, I guess I could be considered to be an old-timer.  I went to Carmel-Clay schools from kindergarten through graduation in 1976.  My wife Julie, who grew up not too far away in Nora, and I make our home here.  We love the arts and are both actively making art.  So, I have deep roots here and appreciate Carmel today as well as its history.

Sincerely, I am requesting that the Carmel Redevelopment Commission not demolish our grain elevator.  And, I am requesting that the Carmel City Council do all it can in its power to stop the destruction of our grain elevator.  It is an authentic historical asset that cannot possibly be replaced by anything new.

Carmel Grain Elevator, Polaroid 02
Carmel Grain Elevator 1, Polaroid Process

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