Stairway in the Air
by Mary Hooper
"It'll be a marvel, just like the Big Well itself was back in the 1880s when it was dug. I think this building will be an engineering marvel."
Roger Brown, design architect with Law/Kingdon Architects of Kansas City, believes that the new Big Well Museum in Greensburg will reflect and represent the "pioneer engineering marvel" that newspapers of the day called the Big Well, as it came to be known.
The new museum will be almost finished when Greensburg observes the fifth anniversary of the Big Tornado – 1.7 miles wide with winds of 205 mph -- that roared through the town on May 4, 2007. Very little of old Greensburg was left standing, just the sturdy WPA courthouse, the grain elevator, one 19th century building downtown, and some houses outside the tornado's path of destruction.
The past five years have seen a gradual rebuilding of Greensburg, which now has roughly 900 residents. The city has a new downtown, city hall, school, hospital, numerous businesses, public library and historical society museum. A new Twilight Theatre is under construction. Most of the new buildings are LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. The acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
The old Big Well museum was a nondescript wooden building that also contained a gift shop. One of the attractions was a 1000-pound pallasite, or stony-iron, meteorite unearthed at Brenham near Haviland in 1949 by famed meteorite hunter H.O. Stockwell. The meteorite was kept in a separate, also rather nondescript, structure.
It's safe to say that the new Big Well Museum will never be called nondescript. It may have visitors reaching for their thesauruses to find words to describe it.
"It's exciting. It's the most unusual building in Greensburg," says Stacy Barnes, museum director and director of tourism for Greensburg.
In the old setup, the Big Well was beneath a kind of canopy outside the museum/gift shop. The new museum is not only built around the well, but seems to spiral up from the well's depths.
"The design resembles a tornado vortex, with the vortex centered on the well. It's very imaginative, a nod to the '07 tornado," said Barnes.
The building's design was dictated partly by the structure of the well itself, according to Brown.
A crew of 12 to 15 men starting digging the well in 1887 to provide water for steam locomotives of the Santa Fe and Rock Island Railroads, which were laying track across the state. The growing city of Greensburg also needed a reliable water supply. The city contracted with the Rock Island line to excavate a well at a cost of $45,000. When finished in 1888, the well was 109 feet deep and 32 feet in diameter.
It was used as a water source until 1932 when the state condemned the use of open water wells for reasons of sanitation, according to Barnes.
So the townspeople decided that if the well couldn't draw water, it could draw tourists, she said. It was capped and opened as a tourist attraction in 1937, billed as "the world's largest hand-dug well," a label it still bears. Only it isn't. According to online sources, there are at least three wells -- in Cairo, Egypt; Orvieto, Italy; and Dover, England – that are much deeper, wider and older.
Okay, but the Greensburg well is still pretty impressive. As is its new house.
In designing the building, architects decided not just to enclose the well but encircle it.
"What you can't see is what's happening below the floor, in the foundation system," said Brown. "Because of the historic nature of the well, we couldn't support anything in or near it because we didn't know what was going on in the subsoil.
"When built, the well had a wooden cribbing, shoring up and holding in place the soil as the well diggers dug deeper."
As described on the website worldslargestthings.com, the well shaft was cribbed and braced every 12 feet with thick planks in a wagon wheel pattern. Workers shoveled soil into barrels, which were hoisted to the surface. The workers then lined the walls with stones and mortar, and sawed off the braces. They continued this process until reaching the desired depth, at which point perforated pipes were driven horizontally into water-bearing gravel, filling the well basin.
"The stones formed the integrity of the circle," Brown said. "The roundness of the well and the vertical shaft have their own integrity of support to prevent the soil pressure from collapsing the well. At 109 feet deep, there's a lot of pressure from the side soil.
"This meant that when we designed the building, we couldn't increase pressure on the well, so we had to design a system to suspend the building over the well."
Architects came up with a system of six huge pilings which bear the building's weight. The staircase that spirals from the second story down into the well is not supported or braced by the well. Instead, the huge metal spiral is supported by cantilevered beams braced against the building's circular concrete wall, which is a foot thick.
"This building is one of a kind," said Brown. "We are suspending the spiral stair in the air without it touching anything.
"The design is based on the structure of a cyclone and inspired by nature. In nature we see the golden spiral in all kinds of things – the nautilus shell, the face of the sunflower, pinecones, the pineapple. The spiral pattern is seen in tornados and galaxies, the Milky Way.
"We picked the golden spiral because it's also a symbol of rebirth, symbolizing the rebirth of Greensburg," said Brown.
Ground was broken for the new museum last September. Funding includes a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development and a $1 million loan from the USDA. Builders are McCown Gordon Construction of Kansas City.
The new staircase will descend 50 feet into the well, or about half-way, instead of going nearly all the way to the bottom as the old one did. The cost of insurance if the stair went to the bottom was prohibitive, Barnes said.
"But even at 50 feet, you get a feeling of the awesomeness of the well. I'm amazed by it. To think that men dug it by hand."
The second story features a 360-degree view of Greensburg and the countryside through windows with etchings of historic landmarks and scenes.
The Brenham meteorite will be brought back to the new museum from its temporary display at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays.
The Big Well has drawn more than three million visitors since 1937. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, awarded an American Water Landmark by the American Water Works Association in 1973, and designated one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas by the Kansas Sampler Association in 2008.