Thoughts on a crumbling grain elevator 

A wrecking ball hangs outside the Carmel grain elevator, one hour prior to the start of the demolition process.
  • Ron Kern
  • A wrecking ball hangs outside the Carmel grain elevator, one hour prior to the start of the demolition process.
Walking back to my car from a reading on the Butler campus week, I passed by the deceptively demure box office of Clowes Memorial Hall, one of the signature buildings designed by Hoosier architect Evans Woollen. The elegant, yet unpretentious, functionality of this 50-year-old structure makes it one of Indy's underrated architectural treasures.

By contrast, take a look at Carmel's Palladium, the main venue of The Center for the Performing Arts and the closest thing we have to a Roman temple in the metro area. Such neo-classical grandeur might have been fine back in 1899 as a demonstration of some Gilded Age industrialist's largesse. But in 2012 it comes across more like a Cheesecake Factory on steroids.

Carmel was on my mind that evening. Why not? I mean, I live there. I live within walking distance of a structure that some consider an architectural jewel, the Carmel Grain Elevator. As you read this, the structure's being pounded by a wrecking ball at the behest of the Carmel Redevelopment Commission (CRC), mayor Jim Brainard's vehicle for transforming Carmel into a ritzy arts mecca.

The grain elevator, built at a time when Carmel served more as an agricultural hub than a bedroom community, served to store grain until it could be emptied into train cars on the Monon Line (back when the Monon was a working rail-line and not the pedestrian footpath it is today).

In recent months, photographer and Carmel resident Ron Kern and others tried to make the case for preserving the grain elevator. He noted, on his blog, how the unadorned functionality of such structures was a major influence on modernist architects and artists. He even appeared before the Carmel City Council, as well as the CRC, arguing his case.

If Brainard had bought into this argument, there would've been a chance to save the Carmel Grain Elevator. There was no pressing need to demolish the structure from a safety standpoint; on Kern's blog, there's an executive summary viewable from 2007 from an assessment by Arsee Engineers, Inc., addressed to the CRC, stating that the structure was sound and basically in good condition. So the approach that Kern advocated - transforming the grain elevator into the centerpiece of an open air performance center or arts venue - was doable.

And Kern had his allies in this fight. On March 29, Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, stated, "Carmel should keep the grain elevator as a piece of sculpture and interpret it as such."

But if you look around the Arts & Design District, with its layer-cake apartment blocks that evoke the ritzier districts of various European capital cities - think Paris meets Monaco meets Rome meets Dubai - you'll see why the Carmel Grain Elevator is being demolished. This unadorned structure, which sits (sat) on the outskirts of the Arts & Design District, just doesn't fit into Brainard's grand vision for the city of Carmel. Brainard has run into some trouble recently communicating this vision - and just communicating in general.

The CRC didn't handle the demolition well, to say the least. They gave just three day's notice to a small business - Club Canine Doggie Day Care - that the grain elevator, which it sits adjacent to, would be demolished, according to the business's owner. This wasn't enough time for Club Canine employees to inform their clients, let alone enough time to relocate. The CRC also apparently didn't do its due diligence either in finding out whether the demolition would pose a health risk for nearby residents and passersby.

Demolition continues on April 22.
  • Ron Kern
  • Demolition continues on April 22.

Partly as a result of the botched PR, a nasty e-mail war erupted recently involving Brainard and various small business owners regarding, among other outstanding concerns, the potential for demolition dust to spread histoplasmosis. (The low point? Possibly Brainard's huffy, parochial reply to one persistent questioner. "It is no secret that I do not like your approach, threats and insinuations," he wrote in an email copied to a long list of addresses, including NUVO, The Indianapolis Star and Current in Carmel. "That may work in your city of Noblesville but not in Carmel.") But all this is (almost) history now. When all is said and done, the longer-term question is whether or not there is, or will be, any public input in the decision-making process - especially with regard to the arts - in Carmel.

Brainard has a knack for taking models from other cities and applying them here. Sometimes that model works. The roundabouts that have been installed in Carmel to wide acclaim (and some distress) are basically a European innovation. Encouraging artists and designers to locate and do business together in the same area - as in the Carmel's Arts & Design District - is a time-tested model.

But in terms of architectural design, Brainard's approach - especially in the case of the Palladium - is downright backward-looking. He hearkens back to a time in American history when Americans looked to Europe for artistic inspiration rather than trying to find a more indigenous model.

No doubt, Jim Brainard deserves credit where credit is due. Thanks to Brainard, Evan Lurie came from Los Angeles to locate his gallery in Carmel, where's he's exhibited work by gifted, well-known artists, including Jorge Santos and Alexi Torres. The Palladium might be the gaudiest arts venue that I've seen in my lifetime, but there have been some fine performances there. And the Arts & Design District, for all its European pretense, is becoming an exciting place to spend an afternoon - or an evening. (You might not want to drink if you're driving home, however, because there are more police pullovers in Carmel than seem possible considering the current structure of reality.)

Maybe, just maybe, some good will come from all of this. I'm hoping that Ron Kern's having gone before the CRC and the Carmel City Council, with his unsuccessful plea to preserve the grain elevator, will open up the city of Carmel to a more diverse (and more local) range of opinion than Brainard is used to listening to. Maybe some new opportunities - to create artists' studio space affordable in Carmel, for example - will open up as a result. More practically, I'm hoping that Carmel's City Council will assert more control over the CRC.

I'm also hoping that Brainard's replacement for the grain elevator won't be as bad as I think it's going to be. The plan is to replace the grain elevator with a water tower straddling the Monon Trail. The water tower will apparently feed flowing fountains at the bottom.

Water towers are necessary things, and they often have a certain functional beauty, just like grain elevators that inspired modernist painters such as Charles Demuth. But, given Carmel's recent architectural record, I fear that this particular water tower might all be kitsched up in a manner resembling the excesses of Las Vegas more than anything that might have impressed Demuth.

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