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Pretty Vacants: The Coolest Empty Buildings in America

They’re weird, amazing, and available. Behold the nation’s most impressive vacant structures.

Ah, to be a real estate developer at the dawn of the 21st century. The sweet tax breaks! The public scorn! Best of all, the endless opportunities to snap up and refurbish America’s many amazing vacant properties!

If you’ve got a few million bucks to play with, you’ll find that the country is littered with remarkable empty structures in various states of disrepair, just waiting for enterprising new owners with big dreams and deep pockets. Here are five of our current faves.

“Superman Building”: Providence, Rhode Island

(Reading Tom/Flickr)

Built in 1928 as the Industrial Trust Building, this early Art Deco skyscraper has long been known locally as the Superman Building, thanks to a (mistaken) rumor that it served as the model of the home of the Daily Planet Building in the comics. Rising some 428 feet above downtown Providence, the 26-story office building is topped with a glowing green beacon in a decorative turret that does give it a certain Golden Age of Comics swagger. (During the 1973 energy crisis, the beacon was turned off to save electricity.) But the tallest tower in Rhode Island has proved to be a tough sell for High Rock Development, the LLC that bought the building for $33 million in 2008. The last tenant, Bank of America, left in 2013, and the Superman has been vacant ever since, though High Rock has a proposal to redevelop it into luxury apartments with ground-level retail. To help drum up support, the Providence Preservation Society is now leading a series of popular free public tours of the vacant icon.

Longaberger Building: Newark, Ohio

Barry Haynes/Wikimedia Commons

The Longaberger Company, makers of direct-marketed baskets and kitchen kitsch, was flying so high in the mid-1990s that they constructed a colossal basket-shaped building to serve as their corporate office. This proved unwise: Sales slowed, the company downsized, and now, well, there’s this empty seven-story basket to deal with, as my colleague Mark Byrnes marveled several months ago. Bloomberg recently checked in on the efforts sell the nearly-new structure and found it going for a bargain price of $5 million, or only $28 a square foot. The “essential basket-ness” of the building is, amazingly, not the biggest sales hurdle, area real estate experts say—it’s the remote location, some 40 miles outside of the nearest city, Columbus.

Martin Tower: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Robot Brainz/Flickr

A similar spasm of corporate hubris much have possessed Bethlehem Steel in 1969, when the industrial behemoth began constructing a high-rise HQ that would utterly dominate the modest skyline of its hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A spare, stark International Style structure, the 21-story Martin Tower remains the tallest building in the Lehigh Valley, but Beth Steel is long gone: After posting record profits in the 1960s and ’70s, the steel giant collapsed into bankruptcy in 2001 and vacated the tower in 2003. Efforts to bring in new tenants have so far failed, and rezoning has opened the door to possible future demolition, despite the building’s inclusion (in 2010) on the National Register of Historic Places and the efforts of locals who love the place. Got a good idea to re-use it? Hit up the “Save Martin Tower” Facebook page.

Michigan Central Station: Detroit, Michigan

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Perhaps the grandest abandoned railway station in a nation littered with them, Detroit’s ginormous Michigan Central Station was the tallest rail station in the world when it opened in 1914; at one time, some 3,000 people worked in the office tower that loomed above the ornate Beaux Arts terminal. But it was doomed by unlucky timing, bad location, and by the private cars that the city began cranking out: The station’s builders designed it to be accessed via streetcar, so it was sited well outside downtown Detroit, which proved to be inconvenient when the streetcars disappeared. The last train passengers rolled away in 1988, and, like much of the rest of the city, the facility began a long descent into photogenic decrepitude. The current owners have pledged to renovate the building: Recently, all 1000-plus windows in the structure have been replaced, and several adaptive reuse schemes have been floated, included making it a casino, convention center, or police station. But its main job remains modeling in Detroit ruin porn, Eminem videos, and dystopian action movies.

Miami Marine Stadium: Miami, Florida

Alan Diaz/AP

Sports venues—big, purpose-built structures that do only one thing well—are among the greatest challenges in adaptive reuse, which is why most are promptly imploded after the team gets that new stadium. The Houston Astrodome clings to life thanks to its historic role as the first modern domed stadium and self-proclaimed Eighth Wonder of the World, and zany proposals to redevelop it are still in play, as Kriston Capps reported here last year. But for sheer cool it’s tough to top Miami Marine Stadium, designed by the Cuban architect Hilario Candela and built in 1963 to host powerboat racing. It boasts the “longest span of cantilevered concrete on earth,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has been active in efforts to save the 6,500-seat waterfront venue. (Here’s a great photo tour and history of the complex from CityLab in 2012.) A plan (co-led by the singer Gloria Estefan) for a $121 million renovation and area redevelopment collapsed in 2014. Now the beer-maker Heineken has stepped up to support the latest effort to turn the place into a one-of-a-kind concert venue.

Got suggestions for more great vacant buildings? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

  • David Dudley
    David Dudley is a senior editor at CityLab. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Urbanite magazine and features editor for AARP The Magazine. He lives in Baltimore.