Millions of square feet of American business space is underground, where work is conducted far from the light of the sun. Former limestone mines, concentrated in the Midwest, have been reused as subterranean storage for everything from precious federal archives to baseball bats, with optics laboratories and RV parking lodged in these human-made caves. Hollowed Earth: The World of Underground Business Parks on view at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Los Angeles features photographs and video exploring these chasmal, commercial alterations to the landscape.
Because 19th-century limestone mining incorporated support pillars, rather than the open-pit mining that is popular today, excavation left chambers ready for roads, lighting, loading docks, and offices. “These old horizontal limestone mine caves began to be turned into storage and office parks in the early to mid 1960s, and continue to be expanded to this day,” Matthew Coolidge, CLUI program manager, told Hyperallergic.
CLUI, a nonprofit dedicated to dispersing knowledge on the use and perception of our national lands, has previously considered topics like the “terrestrial manifestations” of American presidents in last year’s Executive Decisions: The Personal Landscape Legacy of American Presidents. Alongside photographs taken on-site at about a dozen underground spaces, including hundreds of images available to flip through on a touchscreen and access through a digital map, Hollowed Earth exhibits one large video screen of a long drive through an underground business park, passing in and out of the portal in a 10-minute loop.
The scale of these places is immense. SubTropolis, one of the featured sites, has 4.5 miles of paved roads, contributing to the around 20 million square feet of underground commercial space in the Kansas City area. Sometimes, particularly in the Cold War era, these artificial caverns were employed to protect valuable data, such as Rock City Underground in Illinois that is used by the National Archives and Records Administration. Frequently, it’s more banal. Neosho Underground near Neosho, Missouri, hosts a sports company’s baseball bats and gloves, and Bussen Underground south of St. Louis has a beer distributor and seafood importer among its clients. Others like Wampum Underground have facilities taking advantage of the dark tunnels, with the western Pennsylvania site including an optical laboratory.
“They are both exotic and mundane,” Coolidge stated of the business parks. He added that it’s often the same commercial activity as up on the surface, “but it’s in a massive cave, hidden from the sky, and often fringed by the darkness of the undeveloped areas of the former mines, an unlit black horizontal abyss. And there are real mysteries down there, massive government archives on everyone — social security administration, military records — secure data centers, film vaults, and archives, like the famous Corbis archives, in a former limestone mine in Boyers, Pennsylvania. There are also acres of cheese, milled flour, and other bulk food grade commodities. A little of everything, maybe, or a lot.”
Hollowed Earth: The World of Underground Business Parks continues at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) Los Angeles (9331 Venice Boulevard, Culver City, California) through March 26.
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