What we do during our working hours determines what we have; what we do in our leisure hours determines what we are. George Eastman
The Hawkeye Plant is a 759,000 square foot totem pole of Kodak’s storied past. It sits on 12.56 acres on 1447 St. Paul Street in the City of Rochester and is totally empty of business. This summer I had the rare opportunity to officially tour the facility from the inside. The pictures in this article provide a snapshot of what it feels like to walk through a legendary building that has been nearly abandoned by its own company and mostly forgotten by the public.
First a little background. The name Hawkeye is important to the Kodak story. The Boston Camera Company was the original owner of the Hawk-Eye camera until the Blair Camera Company bought them in 1890. Hawk-Eye cameras then changed hands again in 1907 when Eastman Kodak bought Blair which was then changed into a division of Kodak called the Blair Camera Division. Eastman moved this company, with some other smaller outfits, into the PMC building in St. Paul Street, near Driving Park Bridge. In 1911 the building was named “Hawk-Eye Works.” The Kodak lens department was moved there from Camera Works in 1913.
Eastman’s success over his competitors was primarily due to relentless marketing and incredible sales organization with international affiliations. He also had a remarkable instinct for hiring just the right people for the job, and predicting what would most entice and satisfy the consuming public.
As we all know, under Eastman’s helm the Kodak brand grew into a global icon that may only be rivaled by Coca Cola in terms of sheer notoriety.
“You could look up and see that yellow sign all over the world — no matter where you went, people depended on that for their memory-recording,” said photography writer John Larish, who worked for Kodak in the 1980s as a senior market-intelligence analyst.
Architecturally speaking, the building itself is quite fascinating. One local architect with a firm in the East End told me that it is considered to be one of the finest examples of “Factory Art Deco” in the world. I learned on Wikipedia (where else?) that “Art Deco, or Deco, is a style of visual arts, architecture and design that first appeared in France just before World World I. It became popular in the 1920s and 1930s and influenced the design of buildings, furniture, cars, movie theaters, trains, ocean liners. It took its name, short for Arts Décoratifs, from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) held in Paris in 1925. Art Deco features geometric shapes, clear and precise lines, and decoration which is attached to the structure. One of its major attributes is an embrace of technology. During its heyday, Art Deco represented luxury, glamour, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress.”
The Hawkeye Manufacturing Plant, during its peak, exemplified these virtues to a tee.
Sadly, as we also know, especially anyone who has grew up or lived extensively in Rochester, the Kodak Company began to rest on their laurels. Faced with intense foreign competition, then rocked by a digital revolution, the company ultimately filed for bankruptcy, in the process becoming a worldwide symbol for the decline of American rust belt cities.
Today, it can be fairly said that the company has made significant strides to reinvent itself. For example, it has emerged as a major player again in technological innovation and has been tasked to lead the charge on photonics R&D.
Hawkeye has not been as resilient. As far as I know, the building is currently languishing. A lone custodian roams the silent corridors, and the heating bill alone cost the company over a million dollars a year. It is unclear whether it is for sale or if it has a future at all.
That being said, over the past decade or so, people have begun to learn about Kodak’s long and extensive involvement in covert photographic operations centered at the plant. One program in particular has garnered national attention.
Project Bridgehead began in 1955, peaked with some 525 staffers and employed more than 1,400 in total. Perhaps my favorite quote which came out when this project was disclosed, was in the Democrat and Chronicle: “In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, (the staff) all felt that they were part of (a project) that was extremely important to America,” recalled Dick Stowe, who served as the Bridgehead program manager for five years. “We felt we were making a significant contribution to ending the Cold War-which was true. The overhead reconnaissance that Eisenhower promoted was one of the gathering mechanisms that was part of ending the Cold War.”
As should be expected, the D&C was one of the first newspapers in the nation to cover the declassification of Bridgehead, putting the facility’s legacy in geopolitical context for readers. They also had a little fun with the whole cloak and dagger theme of this phenomenal chapter in the secret history of America.
The plane arrived at the airport and taxied to a special location. Its top-secret cargo was offloaded and taken in an unmarked truck to the Eastman Kodak Co.’s Hawkeye plant.
The cargo — aerial reconnaissance film — was processed and developed, turned into photographic images.
These images were then sent to the “customer,” the code word for the U.S. government’s National Reconnaissance Center.
The film was analyzed at the center to see where the Russians — usually it was the Russians — might have had tanks, munitions factories, troops, planes, bombs.
It was a complex, exciting and clandestine Cold War program that ran here from 1955 to the late 1990s. For the longest while, it was part of Rochester’s secret history, a significant contribution to life everywhere known to hundreds of Kodak workers, all of whom had been sworn to secrecy.
Yet another covert government program with ties to Hawkeye is CORONA, a name given for the first operational space photo reconnaissance satellite.
Apparently President Eisenhower approved the project in Febuary 1958. The project was conceived to take pictures in space of the Soviet Bloc countries and de-orbit the photographic film for processing and exploitation.
Some of the scholars I have been researching tell us that CORONA spacecraft were built from 1959-72 by Lockheed Space Systems under Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Air Force contracts spanning 145 launches that provided intelligence the government has called “virtually immeasurable.” (See article link below)
They say that “CORONA’s payload was a vertical-looking, reciprocating, 70-degree panoramic camera developed by Itek that exposed Eastman Kodak film by scanning at right angles to the line of flight. Resolution in early flight years was in the range of 35 to 40 feet. By 1972, CORONA delivered resolutions of six to 10 feet, routinely. In the 1970s, flights could remain on orbit for 19 days, provide accurate attitude, position, and mapping information, and return coverage of 8,400,000 nm2 per mission.”
In fact, the Corona Project, all hyperbole aside, actually established satellite surveillance as a new scientific field. Hawkeye was part of a larger project to provide vital photographic information that permitted the United States to comprehend the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In other words, there is no way to calculate how important it was to the United States Government to have clear and decisive intelligence when assessing the actual threat of the Soviet Union. How much carnage has been released on the world because of ignorance and false information? Is it not fair to say that what went on inside the hallways and corridors of Hawkeye may have prevented a nuclear war?
As if these projects were not influential enough, I have also read that Eastman Kodak was responsible for manufacturing the GAMBIT camera at Hawkeye. This was one of the most powerful reconnaissance cameras ever built. One investigative journalist told the following story:
One young Air Force officer who traveled to view the GAMBIT camera manufacturing facility at the Hawkeye plant in the late 1960s remembered walking through a large cleanroom where dozens of women were assembling small commercial cameras. Because of the requirement for dust-free operations the women wore nothing under their white jumpsuits. The officer fondly remembered that the women occasionally flashed their bare chests at the Air Force visitors, which made the visit to cold Rochester worthwhile.
Kodak, it should be remembered, was an enormously successful corporation that did not need to invest resources into reconnaissance. Nevertheless, their contribution to this enterprise-no matter what your political opinions about spying happen to be- was immense. It is not lost on me that this all happened in a building which now sits dormant in a socioeconomically struggling section of town, within a natural wonder of North America called the Genesee Gorge at the Lower Falls. It truly is an amazing convergence of landscapes and buildings. What will become of this structural and historical marvel is, at this juncture, anyone’s guess.
If I had my way, it would be converted into a mixed use facility that includes small businesses, job training centers, a charter school like the Rochester River School, or a RCSD off site experiential learning center. It could also be transformed into a museum which tells the story of photography, politics, social innovation, architecture, and the power of community. It could be one of the most amazing museums ever designed. George Eastman would not have accepted anything less.
The world is moving, and a company that contents itself with present accomplishments soon falls behind. George Eastman