A Visit to Seaholm, a Majestic Downtown Power Plant

Seaholm Power Plant Generator Room

Seaholm Power Plant Generator Room – Austin, Texas

Driving into downtown Austin on Cesar Chavez Street (first street) from the west, it’s hard not to miss the large power plant by the river. It’s a solid concrete structure and an under utilized landmark. Non-operational since 1989, it has never generated any power during the 20 years that I have lived in Austin. It does have a bright red sign that adorns the side and some blue accents above the entrances — the only signs of life at this deteriorating urban structure. Photographs I’ve seen of the inside have only increased my curiosity of what is hidden within its aging walls. Recently, I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to take a look inside and photograph its interior for a few hours.

This opportunity came about as a result of photographing the Holly Street Power Plant a couple of months earlier. A friend of mine, Therese, with connections to the city heard about my trip to the Holly Plant. After showing my Holly Street blog entry and expressing a desire to have a similar access to Seaholm, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Gloria who works for the City of Austin. Gloria was kind enough to allow myself and a few photographer friends access to Seaholm and even took time out of her weekend to open up the place. What follows are some photographs and impressions of this grand concrete structure.

Architecturally, the differences between Holly Street and Seaholm are significant. Holly is a newer more utilitarian facility made primarily of metal. It appears functional like a warehouse or factory and does not have architectural flourishes. It is extensively surrounded by a maze of metal superstructures and pipes that look complex. It reminds me of a densely packed machine with its guts exposed. The generator rooms is barely visible with all the plumbing that surrounds and feeds the beast.

The Seaholm Power plant is clearly from a different era, though surprisingly only built 10 years before the start of the Holly plant in 1960. Externally, it looks like a solid art deco office building with giant smoke stacks connected at its rear. A bank windows in the front and side clearly adorn the main building which is the major focal point of the facility. Much of its complexity is hidden somewhere as if care was taken to make a power plant as beautiful as it can be without losing its function. Walking inside the main generator room is like entering a huge temple — a temple to industry and to the modern world. It was clearly built to impress with its towering concrete walls and ceiling and ample clerestory windows. While the outside is nicely designed, the inside is what really shines in my book, as you can see from the photograph above.

The color palate at Seaholm is more muted than at Holly which has a red-painted floor. However, Seaholm’s concrete creates some excellent texture, further enhanced with my use of HDR (high dynamic range) photography. As usual, I leave my HDR processing on the light side, opting in this case to enhance texture and detail and not dynamic range. I softened some shadows but chose to retain enough to keep an interplay between light and dark.

For readers unfamiliar with HDR, it is a photographic process were multiple images at different brightness levels are taken and later combined with software to form a single image. I usually use 3 photographs for my HDR but recently have experimented with combining more images, especially in scenes with a large amount of dynamic range.

Photographically, much of the grander remains, though we were slightly disappointed that the main generators have been removed. Holly street was interesting to photograph since the generators and control panels are still in place. It looks as though it was just closed one day and all the power plant equipment was kept in place. Seaholm is different. The city has planned for years to redevelop this property. Much of the large industrial components have been removed long ago.

What remains is the impressive concrete shell that some day will be, hopefully, repurposed for some modern function. In fact, Seaholm has been used for parties during the SXSW events and other large gatherings. While my goal at Holly was to document its machinery and plumbing before being torn down, my focus at Seaholm was to celebrate the architecture and photograph its bones before redevelopment commences. The unexpected treasure at Seaholm is the dark underbelly below the main floor.

We’ll start the tour on the main level, which I call the generator room. The photograph at the top was taken far end of this room. We entered the building at other end, near the wall with the bank of windows. You can see the giant openings surrounded by safety rails which once housed the generators. These openings lead to an underground world a couple of levels deep, which we will explore later in the blog.

Seaholm Windows

Seaholm Windows

We entered the building near the bank of windows on the east wall. It was a little after 10am when we started the photo tour and I caught the sun streaming in from the east. With and the band of clerestory windows near the ceiling, the windows throughout the building, the space was pleasantly bright. Unlike the Holly Street Plant, Seaholm has a light and airy feel. I really like the ceiling detail of this building and the grooved channels on the ceiling adds a nice pattern that leads the eye through the building.

Click here to see all my images from the Seaholm Power Plant. You can also click on each of the photos to see a larger version.

Ceiling Detail

Ceiling Detail

The Mechanical Side

The Mechanical Side

The mechanical wall, for lack of a better term, is really simple and clean in this building. You can see the grey stairs and repeating metal structures on the left side. I don’t know if a lot of piping and mechanical structures were removed along with the generators but the place has a really simple and organized feel.

Crossing the Concrete Canyon

Crossing the Concrete Canyon

Go down a flight of stairs and you enter the concrete canyons that once housed the generators. This metal catwalk spanned some nicely textured concrete pillars. I used HDR to enhance the concrete a bit more than usual. I really like the worn texture and though most people might think of concrete as a cold and impersonal material, when enhanced in this way, I think it takes on a bit of a patina and has the feel of weathered wood. The area is well-lit from above but you begin to see the dark recesses that surround the two level below the main floor. The image below is from the lowest level which I’ve brightened a bit. I was attracted to the light and shadows cast from the concrete pillars with the light that is filtering down two levels. I imagine this space was quite a bit darker when the generators were in place.

The Light From Above

The Light From Above

Port hole

Port hole

Here is another image of the same area framed but through a round port-hole. As you can see the wall has some great details and strange insulation or building materials sandwiched within the concrete layers. The foreground wall was quite dark and the HDR techniques really brought out the details of the wall will preserving the view though the circular opening. I think this is an excellent use of this technique and I believe this is an image that would not be possible without using HDR. The last photograph from down below is the stair case with the red glow. Located on the south-east corner, I saw this reddish glow from the other side. In a mostly monochromatic building, this color really stood out and got my curiosity going. It turned out that the neat color was created by light coming down the stairwell bounced off the red colored floor.

Red Glow

Red Glow

Unlike Holly, where the place was dead silent, Seaholm still had life. There was a persistent hum heard through the building. The lower levels with its many dark rooms, long expanses of graffiti covered walls and strange concrete structures looked like something out of a first person shooter video game. I wasn’t sure if a zombie or alien would pop up from behind the wall. The place really wasn’t scary, at least in the daytime but the lower levels did have an interesting feel to them. I wrote in my Holly blog post that I felt a zen stillness there. Seaholm was more of a study in contrasts. The main level seems like a temple to industry filled with light. The lower level seemed more like a post-apocalyptic bunker, with its massive concrete walls that resembled a bomb shelter.

Going back to the light, I walked up to the second floor that overlooks the generator room. These areas look like they used to be offices. On the south-east corner, there was a light filled space with a view of the new downtown skyline. In the image below, I was able to frame the new 360 condominiums with is the second tallest building in Austin. I like the contrast between the old, roughly textured walls with the light, airily and tall building outside. A contrast between the past and the future? Finally, before ending this photo tour, here are some photographs from the outside of the power plant. The backside of the power plant has several smoke stacks with some associated machinery. Almost none of the metal superstructures that surrounds the Holly plant exists here at Seaholm. A solid concrete path along the roof makes for a nice leading line to the Austin skyline.

A Window on the Future

A Window on the Future

The Proud Stack

The Proud Stack

Seaholm Roof

Seaholm Roof

Main Entrance

Main Entrance

The front of the plant has two similar door ways with the a bold sign that reads City of Austin Power. The final photo shows the potential of this place and while there is some urban decay, the structure remains strong and ready for redevelopment. I am looking forward to see how it all turns out. There are some ambitious plans for retail spaces, condos and hotels on the property. A new central library is going to be built right next door with roads and pedestrian walkways that will connect the future Seaholm site with the library and the rest of the downtown. Time will tell if these were just grand plans on paper or the bold continuation of Austin’s downtown renaissance.

My Thought Process

Image 1: This first photograph gives a nice overview of the grand central space. It was taken from the westside looking east towards the wall of lights. You can see the large opening in the floor that once housed the generators.

Image 2: As we started shooting Seaholm, the sunlight streamed in through the large bank of windows on the east. I wanted to document the “hugeness” of the space and the neat layout of the windows. I also wanted capture the sun rays streaming into the space. HDR really helps in this kind of shot since the dynamic range is so broad. I was able to record the rays of light, the details in the sky as well the interior space in a single photograph.

Image 3: I really love this ceiling. The grooves that run from front to back really pulls my eye down the building. I also like the repeating patterns of the pillars, roof supports and windows. I purposely created an interesting wide-angle distortion by angling the lens upward.

Image 4: As I moved towards the back of the building, the shadows increased. I like that bright distant window and the shadows that are creeping around the staircase and pillars.

Image 5: This catwalk is located one level below the main level. I like the leading lines of the catwalk and the large concrete hole that surrounds the space. I increased the texture and color to emphasize the character on the concrete walls.

Image 6: At the lowest level, the light comes in filtered through the various holes and between the walls and pillars. There is a balance between light and shadow which I wanted to capture. However, I think the shadows are more important here and that is ultimately what makes this image interesting.

Image 7: I found this hole in the wall and love the contrast between the wall texture and the view within the opening. The circle was used to frame the scene but the highly textured frame itself is also interesting. Again, HDR was used to its fullest in this photograph — a scene in which a conventional photograph would not be able to render as effectively.

Image 8: This photograph is all about the red glow. However, I also like the color contrast of the light coming from above the stairs and the purplish color in the room to the right. I attempted the balance the stairs on the right with the pillars on the left.

Image 9: I shot a different downtown view through these windows but as I shifted my position, the 360 Condos came into the frame. I decided to simplify the exterior by centering the building in the window. I’m also attracted to the texture of these walls and the light which is bouncing around in the room.

Image 10: I wanted to capture the smokestack and some of the exterior machinery at the back of the plant. The super wide-angle distorts the lines towards the center, which I think, makes it look even taller.

Image 11: The roof of Seaholm has some great view of downtown Austin. I used the concrete walkway to create leading lines toward the skyline.

Image 12: This photograph is the only one in which I did not use HDR. I increased texture to create a feel similar to the other photographs.

[Note: Make sure to click on the images for a larger version]

Image Details

I took these photographs with the Canon 7D in RAW with the Sigma 10-20mm lens. I used a tripod for maximum stability and ease of HDR processing. I used Photomatix for HDR creation, Pixelmator for layer blending and Aperture 3 for final sharpening, vignetting and burning and dodging effects.

Images 1,3,4,5,6,10,11: f13, 3 exposures, -2, 0, +2 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 10mm
Image 2: f13, 4 exposures, -4,-2, 0, +2 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 10mm
Image 7: f8, 4 exposures, -4,-2, 0, +2 exposure compensation, ISO 160 at 10mm
Image 8: f9, 5 exposures, -4,-2, 0, +2,+4 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 10mm
Image 9: f13, 3 exposures, -2 2/3,-2/3, 0, +1 1/3 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 10mm
Image 12: f8, 3 exposures, 1/320sec, no exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 10mm

12 thoughts on “A Visit to Seaholm, a Majestic Downtown Power Plant

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