Monday, February 27, 2006

Armour Packing Plant

Across the river, in East St. Louis, there exsists a large area dotted with industrial ruins known as National City. If you would have visited this area 100 years ago, you would have seen one of the most well known and innovative industrial centers in the country, with it's state of the art meat packing plants and stockyards. This once great and now crumbling area is often cited as one of the causes for the urban decay taking place in East St. Louis. The Armour Packing plant once made hot dogs - Armour Hot Dogs (I feel like I should be singing that), and is now one of the most spectacular ruins in this part of the country.

The day Chris, Tunajive, and I visited Armour was an exciting day before we even left our meeting spot. White Rabbit, creator and administrator of, was making the trip up from his hometown of Springfield so that we could show him some of the highlights in St. Louis. It was through White Rabbit's site that our small but illustrious group had met, as we were all active on the Undergound Ozarks forums. Though we had spoken via email, none of us had ever met White Rabbit. He pulled up just as I was taking an impromptu pee, which was quite embarrasing. But what an ice breaker! We all introduced ourselves to him and his girlfriend Hiccup, and then were off to Armour.

I was immediately impressed with the packing plant. It is massive, beautiful in it's crumbling state, and relatively free of any tagging. White Rabbit was impressed as well. "We don't have anything close to this in Springfield," he said. Chris began giving us the grand tour. Armour is really two separate buildings: the packing house and the power plant that supplied it with power. Armour was built in 1903 by Chicago industrialist Phillip Armour. He singlehandedly revolutionized the process in which hogs were slaughtered and converted into yummy rods of deliciousness. As opposed to having the slaughtering done at a different plant and then shipped somewhere else for processing, Mr. Armour realized it would be easier to do it all in one place. Packing plants like this were the first industry to use assembly lines. Phillip Armour simplified the process of hog slaughtering and processing by giving one simple task to countless unskilled workers, allowing hogs to be killed, dismembered, and prepared faster than it had ever been done before. Different by-products were even used to make different products like Dial soap! Unfortunately, this empire of meat was abandoned like the rest of National City in 1959. It is in relatively good condition when compared to the nearby Hunter Plant, which closed in the 80s and is crumbling to the point unrecognition.

We began exploring the packing building first. As we slowly ascended the many floors, we found more and more intersting catwalks and ladders. It's amazing how a ladder can go absolutely nowhere, but because it's there I just have to climb it. At one point, White Rabbit decided to climb out into a portion of the building where the above floors had collapsed into the room. As he was returning, he somehow cranked his head on a fallen beam and spent the rest of the trip looking as though someone had smashed a ketchup packet on his forehead. I never once heard him complain about his wound. I did, however, hear him tell Hiccup that he was sorry on multiple occasions. Apparently, this was not the first time his adventurous nature had been a source of stress for her.

On higher floors we found large trenches in the floor that seemed to run to a series of drains. Always morbid, Tunajive and I decided that these must have been where the blood ran after they slit the hogs' throats. Not that we have any idea about the process, but we'd like to think we're right. On the highest floor, you can still see the gate where the hogs would file into the large room for god knows what step of the process. There was no real machinery left in this area of the plant, so I didn't get to see the large machines with whirring blades and clubs like I'm sure must have been there at one time.

After the packing building, we entered the power plant. This building is by far the more interesting at Armour, because unlike it's sister it still has all the old massive machines that used to keep the plant running. I've never seen such a collection of industrial equipment so well preserved in one place. This alone makes any visit well worth the trip. We wandered around this building, actually finding our way into one of the two smokestacks. Though we exited covered in black carbon powder, it was worth it for the feeling of being at the bottom of the massive stack. White Rabbit seemed to want to climb up the ladder that still stretched to the top, but was somewhat unsure of it's stability.

We walked up another series of steel staircases and found ourselves on a catwalk above the giant coal hopper. Interestingly, it was still full of coal. I grabbed a handful in case I would have to play Santa this year. Because seriously, where can you find coal this day in age? The higher floors of this building are all the old locker rooms, including one that is only acessible by dropping through a hold in the roof of the plant. Here on the roof, White Rabbit and I both seriously considered climbing the ladder that still remained on the outside of the smokestack, but again we weren't sure how much we could trust the 100 year old rungs. In the end, our good sense got the better of us. White Rabbit was able to show us the power of his digital camera from there on the roof, taking a shot of someone scavenging through the junk that litters the land around the plant. "You wanna see his face?" he asked me. It was amazing how close he was able to get! It looked as though he had bed standing right next to the man when he took the photo. I guess that's what paying a grand for a camera will get you.

Armour is one of the more interesting places I've ever explored, and begs many return trips. Whenever I tell someone that I visited an abandoned building in East St. Louis, their eyes widen. The armour plant, however, is well removed from anything else. It sits alone, crumbling yet undisturbed. There are always ideas being discussed by those who discuss ideas about what could be done with the many empty industrial areas of National City. Until then, Armour and the surrounding ruins will remain as a testament to a once great empire of industry.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Live Review: The Appleseed Cast

Last night I made the trip to the Gargoyle at Washington University to take in one of my personal favorites: The Appleseed Cast. This was my first time at the Gargoyle, so I wasn't exactly sure where to go. The directions on the website are unspecific, and there are no signs or anything on campus. Somehow, I managed to wander into the correct building. Then it was only a matter of following the 18 year old scenesters with emo haircuts. This just proves my theory: When you can't find the show, follow the emo kids. It's never failed me.

The opening band was a local outfit called The Feed. At first, I was a little aprehensive, as I saw they had a saxaphone waiting on stage. I was preparing myself for the worst of local band self-importance, but these guys actually kicked major ass. They play a interesting brand of piano driven pop, and the saxaphone was only used on a couple songs. It actually fit into the set very nicely, so well done gentlemen. The lead singer kept reminding everyone that it was okay to move around a little bit, and insisted that we all move closer to the stage. By the end of their set, most of the audience had taken to at least minor head bobbing, which is pretty good for an indie crowd.

The next band to play was another local group called Sparland. They were obviously quite young, and wanted desparately to sound like anyone on Victory Records. Normally, I'm a sucker for rock with synth added in, but their keyboardist seemed to be added as an afterthought. I will admit that he was quite enthusiastic, jumping around stage with a feminine style stolen directly from Johnny Whitney from the Blood Brothers. I chose not to waste any of my film on this band. And I was using a digital camera.

Finally, Appleseed took the stage. Their particular style of atmospheric reverb rock translates particularly well in the small club setting. Very few bands can create such lush soundscapes with only two guitars. Known for their epic instrumental sections, the Cast played for a good 5 minutes before singer Christ Crisci sang a word.

I knew, after reading their website, that they would be playing mostly songs from their forthcoming album. The new stuff was beautifully realized, and I can't wait to hear the recorded versions. Despite the amount of material they were unfamilliar with, the audience remained attentive, while they were the most enthusiastic when the band broke into old favorites like "Forever Longing the Golden Sunsets." I was particularly impressed with the drumming of Josh Baruth, who seemed at many moments to be in some kind of a zone, smashing cymbals in a way that helped drive the band forward.

After the band left the stage, I was amazed that the entusiastic crowd was able to get them back out for an encore. The played another old favorite "Fishing the Sky." It was, as expected, an amazing show. I look forward to the new album, and for their return in April.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Return to Enright Middle

On the same day that Chris, Tunajive, and Inubis and I had visited St. Mary's Infirmary, we also made a trip out to Enright Middle School. None of the other guys had seen the place, and I really wanted to return during the day so I could have a little more freedom with taking pictures.

Since my last post on Enright, I have learned that I was incorrect in my belieft that William B. Ittner designed Enright Middle. I used to help me find the actual architect: a firm called Mauran, Russell & Garden. Also, as you can see from this picture, Enright Middle School was not always known as such. It has been known at different times as Smith Academy & Manual Training School, Blewett Junior High School, Harris Teacher's College, and Enright Classical Junior Academy.

The first thing that I noticed when we attempted to enter the building was that the entrance I had used before wouldn't work. It had involved climbing through a high window onto shelves in a storage room. Inubis was the first to try. "Where am I supposed to go?" "Just climb into the room on the shelves," I said. "What shelves?" So, we ended up dropping the 10 feet or so into the storage room. Except for Chris, who realized that the outside door on the outside wall was open. Damn him and his "being smart!" It was obvious right away why the shelves were no longer there: Renovation had begun on the school. All of the trash and rubble that used to be in this area was gone! The shop rooms, which used to still have all the old work tables, were completely empty. The broken mirrors and sinks in the restrooms had also been cleaned up. I had one of those bittersweet moments that an explorer experiences when they realize that a place they love is being saved, but will soon be off limits to them. I was glad that the other guys were getting a chance to see the school before it was completely closed off.

I may have spoken too soon. From the shop and art areas in the back, there is one hallway that leads to the rest of the school's interior. It was securely chained. Perhaps they wouldn't get to see the school after all. We wandered around the outside of the building in the back and found our way into the boiler room. Never having been in a school's boiler room before, I was amazed at the huge air ducts that left the boilers and headed into the school. They were so large that we were able to walk around on them with little difficulty.

It was then that someone noticed our possible entrance to the school. There was a utility tunnel that left the boiler room at it's lowest point. Success! We ended up being right, as the tunnel led to another electrical room in the school. It required a pretty tight squeeze between some pipes, but we weren't going to let that stop us.

Inside the school, it was again clear the amount of work that was being done on the building. Much of the crumbling material on the floors had been removed, and there were instructions written everywhere with spray paint like "demo this wall" and a line. Inubis found a can of the spray paint, and we all commented that it would be pretty funny to instruct them to demolish some additional walls, just to really confuse everyone, but we're not that evil! We also saw a few high tech looking machines apparently used for cleaning up the asbestos. The most interesting aspect of the renovation was one of the fourth floor gymnasiums: It was completely covered with plastic on every wall, like some kind of clean room in case of radiation spill or something.

Apparently, the plan for Enright is for it to be made into apartments, as well as 24 luxury houses being built on the large field in front of the school. As always, I am glad this historic and beautiful building is being used in some way, and I guess there are worse things that apartments and luxury houses. Hopefully, it will help to revitalize an area of the city that seems to really need it.

Does anyone else think that this sign is as funny as I do?!
Lung Cancer
Lung Cancer