Of airplanes and architects: The story of Albert Kahn’s Pratt & Whitney plant

04/19/2014 9:38 PM

04/19/2014 9:38 PM

How does an unglamorous documentary assignment turn into one of the most fascinating photography exhibits of the year? How can black-and-white pictures of empty buildings, concrete and dirt yards prove so compelling?

It’s a four-year saga that involves an old Missouri racetrack, World War II fighter planes, the greatest industrial architect of the 20th century and the Midwestern work ethic.

It’s also about two local professionals, one a historian and the other a filmmaker, who combined their areas of expertise to create “Velocity of Change,” an exhibition at the Belger Arts Center that unites architecture and industry, regional history and international politics. Together they have verbally and visually illustrated one of Kansas City’s most important building sites, which may soon disappear. And it’s a story no one knew much about until now.

In 2009, architectural historian Cydney Millstein was hired by engineering firm Burns McDonnell to research the former Pratt Whitney plant (now the Bannister Federal Complex) at 1500-2000 E. Bannister Road and to prepare a nomination for the complex for the National Register of Historic Places and documentation for the Historic American Engineering Record.

Millstein, the author of three books on regional architecture, had completed many such projects. Still, she says, “when I started I knew nothing about the plant and did not imagine the depth, scope and importance of the project.”

For the HAER report, Millstein ended up with a 360-page document now at the Library of Congress. The most pertinent facts of the study are condensed into a few succinct pieces of signage at the Belger Arts Center. There are still a few people working at the complex today, but the ultimate fate of the site is yet to be determined.

If Albert Kahn (1869-1942) is not well known today, Millstein observes, “it’s because industrial design isn’t sexy.”

Born in Germany, the son of a poor rabbi, Kahn moved to Detroit at age 11. His life soon revolved around architecture. He created dozens of innovative plants for such automobile giants as Ford and Packard, as well as other industrial buildings.

In 1928, he was commissioned by the Soviet government to build a $40 million tractor plant in Russia and was subsequently hired to construct more than 500 factories in 25 Soviet cities, an assignment he completed in three years. The success of these huge industrial building programs prepared him for his work during WWII.

In 1942, with the war escalating, the Pratt Whitney Aircraft Corp. contracted with Kahn to build a plant that would increase the manufacturing of double-wasp engines used in fighter planes.

“After looking at a number of sites around the country, they decided to build in the Missouri Valley on what had been an old racetrack,” Millstein says. “There was plenty of available land, and it was in the middle of the country, hidden from sight. They were also impressed with the Midwest work ethic.”

Kahn was required to use “warspeed” construction for the plant, which meant speeding up production and cutting back on materials necessary for the war effort. Because of his ingenious use of concrete, Kahn eliminated the amount of steel typically used for such projects by 80 percent and also saved on wood. The 3 million-square-foot complex was operational within six months and completed in nine.

More than 21,000 employees, male and female, worked at Pratt Whitney during the war. It was Kahn’s last major commission; he died before it opened. The double-wasp engines manufactured at the complex went into planes that helped win the Battle of the Bulge, the largest, bloodiest battle fought by the U.S. in World War II. It was considered by many the turning point of the war.

The Library of Congress requires that nominations for the National Register of Historic Places, such as the one for Pratt Whitney, be accompanied by archival, black-and-white photographs of the site using film, with no manipulation or cropping of the images. Millstein contracted with Richard Welnowski, an engineer turned entrepreneurial, cutting-edge film and video professional, to shoot all the photographs.

Welnowski, who grew up in Poland and now lives in Kansas City, specializes in effects for digital-based media. He has a global practice and has worked in Iceland, Norway and Japan as well as Europe and the United States.

In 1990, he received a Primetime Emmy for special visual effects on the PBS film “The Orchestra,” and he has filmed in all-digital for the National Geographic cable channel and for the award-winning children’s TV series “LazyTown.”

But the Pratt Whitney project required photos made the old-fashioned way, using real film that had to be processed manually. Welnowski, a self-taught photographer by the age of 7, used a special, handmade view camera that produced large-format, 4-by-5-inch negatives for the task, along with five lenses for large-format photography. He took more than 200 photos on site last summer, when the temperature was often over 100 degrees.

“It took 30 to 60 minutes to set up each shot,” Welnowski says, “and I worked 10-hour days, producing 12 to 15 images a day. I had to walk on top of buildings and move the camera until I found the exact position I wanted, because there could be no manipulation of the film later. Photos taken inside the buildings needed long exposure times, so I had to make sure there were no vibrations, because the camera couldn’t move.

“I then rented a studio for one month because I had to hand-process each negative, making sure the water was a precise temperature. It took me one month, working every day.”

Welnowski decided to scan some of the most compelling images in extreme high resolution. He had Bruce Bettinger and John W. Hans of Dolphin Archival Printing print the images on archival paper. These are the works now installed at Belger.

Welnowski’s images do much more than document a decades-old, vast, vacant site. He has framed the works so that the stark, unpeopled interiors and exteriors of buildings and land are cinematic in scope. Each photo could be a frame from a film, inspiring its own narrative. Each has an awful beauty.

“Real or imagined content plays an important part in my imagery,” Welnowski notes. “I look at things from a horizontal view, because we have two eyes with peripheral vision. I want to give viewers the feeling of many layers within each image. I looked for shadows and active skies when I photographed.

“I have taken many pictures of the landscape in Iceland. Although Pratt Whitney is man-made, it had the same quality for me. I photographed it like a landscape.”

“For years,” Millstein says, “people have driven by that site and wondered what really happened in there. Now with this exhibit we can show them some of the history.”

On exhibit

“Velocity of Change: The Evolution of Albert Kahn’s Pratt Whitney Plant in Kansas City” continues through May 3 at the Belger Arts Center, 2100 Walnut St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Friday (First Friday open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call

816-474-3250 or go to BelgerArtsCenter.org.

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