Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Ghost Greenhouses of Cedar Rapids

Long ago, when home ownership was still theoretical for me and the husband, he spent a lot of time looking for homes in the area (and also not in the area) that already had attached greenhouses, or businesses with greenhouses that might be for sale, or whatever, for what I hope would be obvious reasons.1 This place, in Cedar Rapids, was one that he came across, and we went up there and walked around inside it at one point in what must have been the winter of 2007-08. This may, technically, have been trespassing,2 but it was in the spirit of looking at it to see whether it would be suitable for buying and building a house nearby and all that stuff.

Oh, such dreams we had.

Anyway. We went back last Sunday. It was kind of a come-for-the-trespassing, stay-for-the-photography deal. (For unknown reasons, I didn't get any pictures during the first visit, and it had occurred to me a few days ago that an abandoned greenhouse would be something my readers might find interesting.)

The reader should be cautioned that it's kind of sad.

All pictures will enlarge considerably if opened in a new window. I did play around some with the contrast and brightness on the original pictures, but it appears that I didn't play around enough, because these all look a lot darker than it was in reality.

The place was named Cedar Rapids Greenhouses. The owners were not big on whimsy. Or possibly they were just sticklers for accuracy. It's still listed on-line in various places, though there's next to no information about it. A few of the on-line sites mention the place in terms of landscaping, though it's unclear whether they sold landscaping plants and supplies or actually did the landscaping themselves, and just grew their own plants too. The sign above says they were wholesale-only, though that's not the impression I get from looking around at what's left. I mean, some of it looks more like it was retail: there was a sign, for example, saying 2" houseplants were $1.49, which seems like a lot to ask for wholesale and maybe not quite enough for retail, even if you take into account that people are often confused about the size of 3" square pots.3 But who knows.

They want $550,000 for the 4-acre property, which seems like a lot: it's in a location with decent traffic, on the southwest side of town, but at the same time I don't know whether there's anything salvageable about the structure. Possibly you'd have to spend another $550,000 to demolish it all and clean up the mess. A couple of the houses have what look like new polycarbonate-panel roofs. The husband speculated that maybe the polycarbonate would be worth salvaging, maybe.

The giant weeds almost touching the ceiling here are goosefoot/lambsquarters; more on that later.

The $550,000 is what they were asking before the A) Cedar Rapids economy specifically, and B) real estate market in general, fell to pieces, so it might not be real firm. There may or may not be a second property under the same name, at a different address, too, which doesn't appear to be included in the sale, but Google Maps was frustratingly inconsistent about listing the second address, so I'm left unsure whether the second site even exists, or whether it's functional. The husband said that it seemed like he'd heard, at some point in his searching, that CRG had decided to sell the site in the pictures because they'd rebuilt elsewhere. I'm unable to confirm either way.

I'm not sure what this picture is supposed to be of; it's not set up at all like the property we were looking at, so either it's gone through a lot of changes or this is some other property. It was up on the wall in the customer service area. (Seems like a shame to leave it there: surely this was somebody's family business, and there would be sentimental value?)

There were two greenhouses which were pretty much fully intact: most of the pictures are from those. Then there was one that was not intact at all, beyond a basic framework and a few tatters of shade cloth, and a fourth one that was mostly covered except for a few panels missing in the roof.

This is the not-intact-at-all one.

There was also an addition where it looks like large equipment used to be stored. There were a couple walk-in coolers there, and a big pile of sand, and not much else. There were also: one smallish room that appeared to have been a front-counter area, another smallish room that looked like it had been an office, and a third room which didn't have any obvious use whatsoever: it was completely windowless, and I don't remember it having anything inside except for, of all things, a badly degraded, probably worthless, 1970s-era Pachinko machine,4 which I stupidly failed to get a picture of.

You might expect that being in an abandoned greenhouse would feel creepy or have a haunted-house / ghost-town kind of feeling. Yes and no. I never felt anything like that in the greenhouses themselves. Possibly it would have been freaky at night, but in full bright sunlight in the middle of the day with traffic noise all around, it just felt like a greenhouse that had been maintained incredibly badly. It may be the case that it's impossible to make a greenhouse feel creepy during the day.5 The offices and customer-service area were kind of creepy, on the other hand: not only were they darker, but they're the places where, under normal circumstances, you'd expect to find people, and it's a little unsettling to expect people and instead find a pile of dry-erase markers and thank-you cards on the floor and a two-drawer file cabinet with both drawers pulled open.

The $1.49 houseplant sign is barely decipherable in this picture.

The plants in the greenhouses were the same plants as were in the field next to them. There was one large blooming thistle of some kind, and a few different goldenrods (Solidago spp.). More mulberry trees than I would have expected, though it makes sense now that I think about it: of course this would be where birds would go to sit and digest and get out of the rain.

I was also surprised to learn that goosefoot (Chenopodium album, probably) can get huge in greenhouse conditions: there were several there that were probably a good eight to ten feet tall, including the ones in the picture of the pulley and polycarbonate panels, earlier in the post.

There was also a plant there that answered a question it hadn't even occurred to me to ask, ever: what happens when a plant that depends on wind for seed dispersal receives no wind? It turns out that the seeds just kind of . . . accumulate.

With a big enough plant, this leads to a light blanket of seeds on everything --

-- which includes the plant itself:

That last picture is actually as close to creepy as anything we found in the greenhouse proper. Probably the resemblance to cobwebs is what's doing it in that case.

The ability of the weeds to find cracks in the pavement is impressive. And look how tall some of them are!

Probably the most difficult part, for me, was seeing all the abandoned pots and plastic saucers and whatever, knowing that they'd already been there for more than a year, were never going to be used for anything, and would probably just sit there until they broke, disintegrated, or were thrown away. I could have used them for something, rather than just letting them sit there. But I was good, and I didn't take anything. I didn't even touch anything, except for the door handle to get in. But still. Clay pots! Just sitting there, pointlessly, waiting to be broken! It was painful.

Actually, as far as it goes, I coveted the benches, too. A person could do a lot with that kind of bench space, though having to pull out ten-foot mulberry trees first would get tiresome.

I don't know what else to say about it. One hopes that this won't all just be thrown out, that it can be salvaged and used somewhere, though it's already sat for so long that this is looking less and less likely. And, again, even if the structure is sound, which I don't know whether it is or not, the amount of clean-up a person would have to do to make this all functional again would probably be such that it would be simpler to start over on a new piece of land and build everything from scratch.

I keep trying to find a way to sum it all up, and nothing sounds quite right. Mainly it was sad, more than anything else, with maybe a hint of postapocalyptic (though for postapocalyptic you also need silence, and we didn't have that). It seems like a huge waste of stuff, and space. But it's not like I would know what to do with this stuff, this space, if it were handed to me. And, like I said, probably the thing to do would be to tear it all down and start over anyway. Since I figure that's what's most likely to happen in the end, I guess the one bright spot is that I've seen and documented the place. If it can't endure forever, at least it has a web memorial, right? I hope this excuses the trespassing.

From the back; I neglected to get a shot of the place from the front.


1 If it's not obvious: I want a greenhouse.
2 When I mentioned this to the husband, he pointed out that there were no "NO TRESPASSING" signs posted on the property, which is true, though I don't think the absence of a sign prohibiting trespassing means that trespassing is necessarily desirable or encouraged.
3 Square pots are measured along the diagonal, not along the length of a side. This gets particularly confusing when you're talking about 3" square pots, because the length of a side of one of those is 2.1 inches, close enough that everybody (and I mean everybody -- used to drive me nuts) called them 2-inch pots at work, and we even had signage to that effect. This despite the fact that nobody seemed to have any problems with the 4" square pots being 4", not 3" which also only works when you measure along the diagonal. If the CRG people were also unaware of this particular industry convention (which it seems like that would be hard to miss, if you're in the industry, but things happen), then maybe they were actually selling 3" plants for $1.49. Still a little high, but not terribly unreasonable for wholesale.
4 Which I recognized as such only because one of my grandfathers bought and fixed up gambling equipment like Pachinko and slot machines and etc. for a while in the mid- and late 1980s (perhaps longer than that; I haven't actually seen him in more than ten years). I think he may only have let me play with the Pachinko machine once, during some kind of family get-together, but it was awesome. The time he gave my brother and me each a roll of quarters and told us to go upstairs and play the slot machines was a lot less entertaining, didn't last nearly as long, and was, I suspect, more of an oblique lesson about the perils of gambling than an attempt to keep us entertained.
5 Though before making such a sweeping pronouncement on the matter, I'd want to give David Lynch a fair crack at it. If anybody could do it. . . .


Hermes said...

That is so sad - and such a loss.

patientgardener said...

It is sad to see this sort of thing but hopefully someone will eventually purchase the land and do something with it

our friend Ben said...

Heartaches, and nothin' but, Mr. S.! I can't help keeping watch over every public and private greenhouse around here, too, hoping they'll endure, grieving if they seem to be going under.

Stan Apps said...

What an amazing post! The abandoned greenhouse tour. . . Pistures of abandoned stuff make me extremely happy, actually--there's something freeing about it.

Becca said...

reminds me of visiting my grandfather's nursery after his death. The greenhouses/land had been leased out for several years and the person had NOT taken care of them. It was like a slap in the face to see those greenhouses in that condition--plants growing wild. So, I kind of know what you mean about creepy...

Kenneth Moore said...

That's wicked-cool, Mr. S! Such sights make me feel all motivated to do stuff. What if you bought it and got local gardeners to come and help clean it up? They could get a 5% or 10% discount for the first year of operation or something. :-P (I think "discount for life" would be a bit too much, but that was my first thought.) I'd sure as heck buy some stuff!

GreenHouses said...

Really Sad, hopfully someone will purchase the land.