Some of the best finds are incidental as in this case where we were leaving one location only to spot another. While our visit was short we were both amused by the forest of catalpas and other softwoods that had sprung up within the shell of this former church. Leaving aside the contemplations others may have regarding the common negative stereotype of an atheist in America, I do take some small joy in witnessing the demise of the church, both figurative and literal.
I believe our world would be a better place without religion and faith while at the same time I recognize that people will always be individuals and irrationality will never cease being a part of who we are. I just hope that we, as a society, can grow up and leave behind the toys of our childhood and create a society based in critical thought and rationalism. It would not be an easy thing to do, nor would it provide us a utopia. But any increase in the happiness and health of a society is something we should all strive for and religions only give us the tools to inspire conformity, tribalism, apathy and wishful thinking. One does not need faith to be a decent person, to find meaning in life, relieve suffering or to improve the world. I disagree with Tabula Rasa that faith is a necessary part of humanity; I think it only a necessary part of childhood and part of growing up is letting go of the binky that keeps the monster under the bed away.
I’ve never discussed my atheism in any detail here because in general it was not relevant, but as Tabula Rasa tends to prod me into action I could not leave his last post unanswered. While we are both godless we don’t always agree on matters pertaining to atheism since he doesn’t follow the movement while I do. Perhaps it is because I used to be so fervently religious, perhaps it is because I came to lose faith later in life.
I confess that I dream of the day when most churches have been returned to nature, or repurposed for community service even while I know that day will not be in my life time. In the meantime I will work towards encouraging people to let go of the binky of faith and embrace the wonder of a natural, complex world in which we are the only ones who have the power to imbue our lives with meaning.
As Tabula Rasa is so fond of saying, a large part of what makes us who we are as humans is our irrationality; I happen to think that critically reviewing and recognizing our irrational thoughts, emotions and impulses will allow us to turn them to positive and productive forces. Despite the fact that Sir Isaac Newton was not only a Christian and alchemist he is also one of the greatest minds in our recorded history and most of us recognize this (despite how the media portrays the atheist movement) . There is a very real reason that Newton’s scientific works survived in history and cultural memory while his alchemical ones did not. The science works.
Just as on the other hand the broad slate of avowed atheism allows for a wide range of characters to claim the title, from PZ Myers, to Dave Silverman, and even the Raelians to Stalin. But atheism is only a tool, the blank slate to write upon, while some may use it for creating a cult of personality or to brutalize others, others use it to further science education and to improve society for everyone. Just as faith does. My argument is that atheism is a better tool and that while we will always have both overtly good and overwhelmingly bad people using both religion and atheism for divergent purposes the tools of rationality and critical though may help us filter out those who would abuse others.
Yet here we are, contemplating the beauty of a fallen place of worship, one which now harbors a small forest within it complete with squirrels and sparrows. We are all individuals, even as we are are all part of a greater whole. In the end many of us find some sense of beauty and wonder when confronted with a place like this even as others may not, though I suspect those in the latter category are not readers of this blog. No matter if you hold a strong faith or stand godless so long as I have managed to impart at least a small portion of the elation, wonder and sorrow I feel in this place then I have achieved what I set out to do and gave some measure of happiness to one person, even if it is perhaps a little bittersweet.
A bemused onlooker may be forgiven if, looking on the culture wars raging in the States currently, she judged all atheists to be obnoxious zealots in pitched battle with their adversaries, the ignorant forces of religious intolerance. In the cold war over hearts and minds, the stakes are high, and surely the fight to keep the calendar from being rolled back a century in ethics and science is worth fighting. But atheism is just an absence of faith. It can no more be “against” religion than a vacuum can be “against” pressure. It needs something to inform and fill it, but if all that thing is an opposition to faith and religion, it has chained itself to the very thing it claims to transcend.
The adapted position of most atheists as paragons of rationality against reactionary bigotry misses both that some of humanity’s greatest scientists were fervently religious, and that some of history’s bloodiest episodes were instigated by avowed atheists. The question of whether it is somehow “better” to have faith or not is moot; there will always be the believers as there will always be the faithless. And each in turn, being human, are capable of both the greatest and basest deeds. Moreover,each side is necessary, as each offers something to society at large that the other can’t.
If all this is true, what can we tell our rhetorical onlooker that atheism actually is? It is the great blank slate we are each handed, which we have the freedom to accept or reject. It is being able to write one’s own script, though some of us know we make lousy playwrights. It is the freedom to find beauty and meaning wherever we choose. And in the end, it is seeing the struggle between faith and the lack thereof as part of the eternal human condition, and seeing the beauty in that struggle. In the photograph below, I see the beauty and drama that the confining walls of the church impart to the wildly growing foliage. But to you, it could mean something entirely different. It is, after all, a tabula rasa.
On a rough clearing ringed by a fence keeping the surrounding thicket at bay stands this menacing building. Two smokestacks flanking it like minarets, it rises into the sky like a grim temple.
Prayers raised from within the cathedral-like interior unto a mad, deaf god go unheeded.
With the passage of time and rotation of the earth the sunlight begins to angle overhead and fall unimpeded through the ravaged roof of the machine room. I have wandered out of here twice, but am called back by the lure of the ever changing play of light and shadow that the other building cannot hope to compete with. The third time I enter this room is also the first time I see it with full direct sunlight. Up above me glittery spider webs refract the light and even while I delight in the sight I fervently hope that their creators stay where they are.
At first I cannot decide at first if the strong light is helping or harming my attempts here, and when asked Tabula Rasa replies in the negative. I pause and consider for a moment, then I see this.
Nihilism is not seeing the open door for the darkness that is behind it.
Stepping in closer to take in the details.
I smile fondly at the name Frick, remembering a dear friend who has passed on too soon. This is the only place I’ve seen this name out of the context of her name.
Valves where everywhere, early automation wasn’t very automated and required many people to keep it running smoothly.
I’ve never seen one of these outside of an old cartoon, I was a little surprised that they actually existed as part of real machinery,
The quiet early morning light illuminates machinery that has slept for over 60 years.
The touches of scroll work remind of a time when even industrial work places made some attempt to be beautiful.
Caution is employed with every step, the metal flooring plates are brittle with age and exposure.
Vertical transitions of varying heights and stability.
Sometimes an undignified scramble is safer than a crumbling step.
Time and chemistry have done their work in rendering these stairs unpassable.
My first impression upon entering the power plant of Armour was that I needed to be very cautious about the placement of my feet.
My second impression was that this place was wonderland of light and shadow.
Above my head was a massive coal hopper, and beyond was a room that had been fully invaded by the creeping green forest that surrounds it.
Then I looked up.
A steampunk garden of brick, brass and steel
Industry, the likes of which licked those Commies but good!
Sundial terrarium at noon.
On one’s approach, the vast, rotting campus of the Armour plant seems a lost Shangri-La. The twin smokestacks are the guiding beacon, the buildings themselves being lost from view in the foliage. When the factory walls finally loom into view, crowded with trees and mad with ivy, the entire edifice seems like a ship lost in storm, slowly being dragged under by the verdant waves.
From inside, one is a witness to a shipwreck, albeit one unfolding in glacial, almost epochal, time, though no less sure of its final destruction for its torpor.
“…I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.”
H.P. Lovecraft, Ex Oblivione
Mere minutes away from the everpresent Arch, in an overgrown neighbourhood of East St. Louis dotted sporadically with industrial sites of unknown purpose, peeking out over the dense grove of trees that seem to guard it on all sides, stands this massive, crumbling brick edifice. Shuttered since the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, this plant was the focal point of our trip to St. Louis, and would not prove disappointing. We arrived at sunrise, partly for the complementary light, and partly in attempt to avoid the rumoured self-appointed neighborhood watchman of the place who might try to chase us off. The purported do-gooder never appeared, and we plunged into the brush to find our way in. Soon after, the morning light broke over the treetops and flooded the plant with gold.
The sun was barely peeping over the horizon when Tabula Rasa and I stumbled forth from our hotel into a cool Sunday morning in St. Louis. This was the day we were going to explore the old Armour meat packing plant which was in operation from 1903 to 1959. The reason for our early rising was the many reports of the elderly gentleman who patrols around the building and chases off people like us whenever he can. I was hoping to meet him since the rumors are that he once worked there and I had some questions, but I’d rather it would be at our exit than entrance. This building was the reason we were in the St. Louis area to begin with, everything else was just icing on the cake.
The building itself, or buildings, since this is a whole complex of which only two large buildings remain to any degree, is in a barren stretch of East St. Louis and tucked away in a mini forest of dense vegetation full of spiders and creeper vines. A short hike through the tall grass and into the woods brought us to the back way in and my first close up sight of Armour told me that even if we failed to gain entry into another building in the upcoming week, this trip was worth it.
Early morning is my favorite time for an explore, much to Tabula Rasa’s dismay. This day was perfect, and the only sounds to be heard was the dawn greetings of birds I am mostly unfamiliar with, the chirruping of crickets and the crackling of the vegetation as we approached. The light filtering in through the trees lent the whole place a magical air and I forgot my weariness at the early hour and trepidations over the reports of how dangerous this location could be.
It didn’t take long for us to wander apart and get lost in the silence and it would be well over an hour before we would see each other again.
The green has swallowed these buildings whole, and we were in the thick of it. One building has gone so far that it is nothing but a skeleton of itself, and the creepers have scaled its bones, slowly tearing it down, making it part of the green once again.
This is not a place of humankind any longer, and our trespass into this land is against the reclaiming forces of nature rather than human law.
During our weekend in St. Louis we spent a bit of time contemplating the bridges of the region. In the city they are not the prettiest structures around which I found a little peculiar given that I am accustomed to bridges that have been gussied up a little bit and not left looking totally utilitarian and industrial. Our river is no where near as impressive as theirs, but generally our bridges have generally been painted or lit to be visually striking to those using them or passing by. It wasn’t something I noticed right away, but after a discussion with our bartender at Bailey’s Range (they make the best hipster burgers I’ve ever had. Seriously, if you’re ever in the area go there, get the Korean BBQ duck burger and tell James we say hello. You won’t regret it.) we got a tip on a rather striking bridge not too far from town. You’ve seen the view from it in TR’s most recent post so I decided to share the bridge itself.
I don’t have an ultra-wide angle lens, so rather than trek up the bridge on foot for a view of Alton I chose to go the other direction and scurry down the riverbank for a view of the bridge.
While fighting the brambles and spiders I decided to go ahead and attempt a pano of Alton itself since I thought the gaudy casino riverboats made a nice contrast to the industrial and stoic character of the town as seen from the far bank.
The Mississippi, as seen looking north from US 67 bridge about 10 miles north of St. Louis. Alton, Illinois, is on the right bank.
In the quiet of an autumn rain that can hardly be heard pattering down on the remainder of the old church’s roof I stand amazed at the beauty of a human’s handicraft, and saddened by the evidence of destruction brought by other humans either by neglect, willful and petty malice, or greed.
The collapsed reredos, buried behind the rubble of a fallen section of ceiling, is inscribed with German translations of scripture (John 14:16) and provides me with bittersweet schadenfreude and I consider my past devotions to the god of the Bible in the light my of now godless existence.
While others may despair that such a lovely church has fallen to such a depth of neglect and disrepair I only sorrow that something so beautiful, the evidence of the creativity and ingenuity of humankind, is allowed to rot away into obscurity.
The handiwork of scrappers is everywhere, though not as bad as I’ve seen in other places. Part of me finds some joy that a remnant of beauty may remain, lost to obscurity, in the years to come and long after this building has succumbed to the inevitable forces of nature, time and physics. Yet even given that I would rather to see it remain together, complete, if not intact. Still, as the carrion eaters have their place in nature, so too do the scrappers have their place in the decay of man’s creations.
Sound is muted here, not dulled nor harshened as other places may be; it must be all the rot in the wood. It is a pleasant feeling to me, and I wonder what sound the person who threw the brick or stone through the glass heard. Was it a crash? A thud? Did it make them happy for a brief moment to release their frustrations in one hard swung weight? I know all too well the joy of breaking glass deliberately and freely confess to having destroyed a window or two sometime in my past. But why here? I pardon the damages to the elaborate stained glass as youthful exuberance but still resent the hastening of destruction for no purpose other than a lack of imagination. There are other windows that no one will mourn the loss of, turn your frustrations onto them, please.
Bemused, I regard the obligatory abandoned piano. It woefully returns my gaze, a reminder that others see what I see, and rather than destroy or deface they choose to give a part of themselves and make even this forlorn place a little brighter.
The church we came across on St. Louis’ north side was quite a find to stumble upon. There is no feeling quite like your first time walking onto the floor of a crumbling church. I say this even as a lapsed Catholic and present atheist. The architecture of churches inherently inspires awe and piety, but when abandoned and crumbling, the formality of a church seems stripped away and all one is left with is the feeling of reverence upon entering. Reverence towards what? I ask myself, but sometimes it’s better to shut up and take pictures.
Moving along from the Candy Factory we don’t really know where we’re going, only that we seek the places shut away, forgotten and ignored. There is an idea of where a location might be but in the course of looking for it we see something irresistible.
Tabula Rasa’s term for a building like this is “catnip”, as we’re like a pair of curious, playful kittens when presented with a building of this nature and apparent quality.
Old, stately, a lot of intact glass and tightly sealed doors. However despite the impending rain the sun was metaphorically shining on us as we found an easy point of entry and shimmied our way in to a little room. The age and neglect of the building was obvious as the odor of mold and wood rot was everywhere. Upon entering the sanctuary we were awed into silence. This is what we were hoping to find.
A very cautious climb up the stairs gains us the balcony, above that we feared to tread due to the amount of rot all the wood seemed to be suffering. The balcony itself was risky enough for the both of us and view it provided was well worth that risk.
Before we move on to the next site on our photographic trail of tears, some shots of the parts of town that are not decaying. These shots are nothing special, but I love night photography. It’s always a little thrill to see a long exposure, which seems to light up the darkened scene you were looking at. This is the old courthouse, which faces the Arch from the west.
And here, a couple buildings downtown. I’m guessing 1880’s era, with art nouveau details. (This is just a guess, any architecture geeks out there are welcome to correct me).
And finally, the Grand Hall of the St. Louis Union Station Hotel. The center of the hall is a rather large lounge with bar which I highly recommend having a drink at.
Not every floor was a vast expanse of empty, we actually found a mini lift still parked in the middle of one floor. I was a little surprised that such equipment was left behind as surely someone somewhere would have found a use for it. I’m even more surprised that scrappers haven’t yet run off with it yet.
Our time here at the Candy Factory is over. St. Louis beckons us with the lure of more interesting buildings to explore.