What Do We Do With This Big Empty Industrial Building?

November 11, 2019

Thanks to a building and manufacturing boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s, plenty of big industrial warehouses, factories, and similar structures stand in urban centers and small cities across the Midwest. Many now sit empty; stoic relics of a bygone time that present challenges to their communities.

Can such bulky, unwieldy structures be rehabilitated and brought to life again as contributors to community vitality? What possibilities do they offer? RDG’s restoration team shared their knowledge on this topic at the 2019 Preserve Iowa Summit.

RDG presenting at 2019 Preserve Iowa Summit.


Our country was in the midst of an Industrial Revolution around the turn of the century. The rise of the automobile meant auto companies abounded – they hadn’t yet coalesced into a few huge automakers, nor was Detroit yet the auto manufacturing capital of the U.S. In fact, the Duesenberg brothers were building cars in Des Moines from 1903 to 1905 (a business they ultimately sold to Maytag, which produced its own vehicle brand for some years), and there was a Ford assembly plant in Des Moines from 1920 to 1932.

Goods were transported in unprecedented numbers across the nation via trucking and rail systems. Heavy-duty warehouses were needed to store goods moving in and out of communities – especially the communities with manufacturing plants. The railroad system grew exponentially during this time, with the number of miles of track operating in Iowa growing nearly 400%, from 2,683 miles in 1870 to more than 10,500 miles in 1917.

Suddenly there were hundreds of two-to-five-story industrial buildings being built in communities – generally with reinforced concrete skeletons, load-bearing exterior masonry, featuring large open interior spaces and interior columns of heavy timber or steel. They were often built close to downtown and connected to major rail and trucking routes.

Most of these building designs were practical and utilitarian, using basic quality materials for walls, windows, flooring, ceilings, etc. They weren’t necessarily built to last forever but were generally designed to the fire resistance standards prevalent at the time, so insulation, tiles, cement siding, coatings and glazing putty generally included asbestos.


There’s something majestic about the sturdy structures that survive from this period, but many have been sitting empty and even derelict since the prime of their lives. Communities and developers looking now to rehabilitate these structures face a few challenges. These can include:

  • Walls, windows and roof construction may lack energy efficiency.

  • Hazardous materials in the buildings may compromise life safety: lead paint; asbestos; mold or animal droppings if the building has sat empty for some time. These can require testing, abatement, and/or encapsulation by outside professionals, all of which add cost and time to projects.

  • Handicapped accessibility can be compromised.

  • Large open spaces provide limited access to exterior walls, making it difficult to design for spaces that need natural daylight, such as sleeping rooms.

Even with these challenges, there are attractive aspects for owners to consider. Rehabilitation that includes housing and/or retail spaces can be an appealing economic development opportunity for a community. By working closely with local public officials, developers may be able to assemble financing packages that reflect the benefit to the community of restoring a structure to active use.

Too, these large industrial buildings can offer great design flexibility. The large open spaces and basic levels of finishes can give owners and designers reign to be creative without requiring major demolition – and those same qualities can make demolition and space preparation much more budget-friendly than more complex buildings.

Before and after: The Chamberlin Building

Example #1: Chamberlin Building, 1312 Locust, Des Moines

Built in 1916-17, the Chamberlin Building was used for automobile sales under various company names well into the 1950s. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 2007, it includes such features as:

  • Brick exterior, including primary façade

  • Polychromatic brickwork

  • Stone and terra cotta accent decoration

  • Chicago style windows

  • Division of storefront into 2 stores

  • Large glass display windows

  • Roof parapet

  • Large and open interiors

  • Decorative metal ceilings

  • Structural truss support systems

With careful study, collaborative planning and creative design, a new multi-use, multi-tenant retail and office building was born from this aging structure. Working within the parameters required to maintain NRHP status, RDG architects focused on particular historic elements to restore and repair, including removing the paint from the brick façade, replacing windows, and fully rehabilitating the interior. The building now lives a proud new life in the midst of Des Moines’ vibrant downtown Gateway area.

Before and after: The Kruidenier/Flynn-Wright Building

Example #2: Kruidenier/Flynn-Wright Building, 1408 Locust, Des Moines

In 1919, the Kruidenier Cadillac Company boasted “one of the finest and largest automobile showrooms and service stations in Iowa,” at this location. Home to various businesses over the years, there had been extensive changes to the building — much of the original stone and brick was either missing or irreparably damaged, which made it impossible to include the structure on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the building retained distinctive character-defining features, including:

  • Large glass display windows

  • Large and open interiors

  • Decorative tile floor finishes

To rehabilitate this building, RDG professionals worked with the owner to completely replace the front façade, demolish and re-build the interior infrastructure, and modernize throughout. Historic interior mosaic tile and plaster moldings were preserved or replicated where possible, and previously filled openings were reglazed to provide light and views in all directions. The Pappajohn Sculpture Park, directly across the street, influenced the addition of the “yellow box” feature, which frames Jaume Plensa’s “Nomade” sculpture for those looking out from the building. The result is a contemporary, lively building that marries a sturdy history with a hip, urban feel.

Before and after: Harbach Lofts

Example #3: Harbach Lofts, 300 SW 5th Street, Des Moines

The L. Harbach & Sons Company Warehouse and Factory Complex was built in 1906 along the southern edge of Des Moines’ central commercial business district, conveniently located next to rail and truck shipping routes. The two buildings, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015, are linked by a paved courtyard and loading dock. These sturdy structures were home to a variety of furniture, mattress, and art-making and/or warehousing businesses for more than 100 years, with character-defining features such as:

  • Brick exterior, including primary façade

  • Painted signage

  • Windows with cast stone sills

  • Wood double-hung windows

  • Pedimented main front door opening

  • Elevator penthouse

  • Interior first-floor lobby and interior staircase

  • Exposed brick interior perimeter walls

  • Interior exposed concrete and wood

  • Loading dock, Freight elevator, Utility tunnel and boiler room

  • Basement vault

Beginning in 2015, RDG design professionals worked with owner Kent Mauck to rehabilitate and revitalize the buildings for a new generation, capitalizing on a growing interest in downtown living and working in this former industrial area. Now, the two buildings house 103 apartments, a theater room, a fitness room and a street-level retail and coffee shop. Exposed brick, wood beams and floors, and industrial elements throughout the interior pay homage to the history of these structures, even as they live a dynamic new life in a burgeoning urban neighborhood.

In each of these buildings – and many like them across the nation – the key to re-creating them as positive contributors to their communities is an ability to see their solid, industrial edifices and open interiors as opportunities rather than obstacles.

Written by Scotney Fenton, Architect