When workers left the Ernest Bain Waterworks Plant in 1987, a landmark of Raleigh was left to neglect.

Visitors to the plant today might sense that the workers just walked out one day, never looking back. You can still find where they took their last measurements of the tanks; in a room used to house caustic chemicals, you can look down into the vats to see where the remaining liquids were left to harden into a crystalline crust.

Built in 1939, the Bain building features a distinctive, beautiful Art Deco style, but after being converted to storage, the location has sat nearly forgotten south of downtown Raleigh. This could soon change, for a plan enacted by Raleigh city council in 2003 will bring $3.5 million to renovate the building, opening it up for shops and restaurants. Currently, the property is owned by Empire Properties, a real estate company that is invested (in both senses of the word) in restoring and developing historic industrial properties in Raleigh.

Before the facility moves forward into its mixed-use future, a group of artists calling themselves and their enterprise The Bain Project plan to draw the beauty out ofand attention toBain. Over the last nine months, members of the 12-artist collectiveincluding Marty Baird, Luke Buchanan, Jen Coon, Tim Kiernan, Stacey L. Kirby, Lee Moore, Lia Newman, Sarah Powers and Dana Raymondhave cleaned out, dug up and revamped areas of the Bain plant to convert it into an installation art exhibit, using the whole location as one big found object.

The Bain Project opened its doors to the public this past weekend and will be open this Saturday and Sunday, May 16-17, from 1 to 5 p.m. As of late Sunday, the plant had seen more than 500 visitors pass through its doorsa figure that’s probably several times more than the number of people who had been inside in the last decade.

Visitors walking into The Bain Project are greeted by a volunteer in a lab coat, who instructs them to proceed to the next room to fill out permits. The permit office features a desk with a project member dressed like a 1950s secretary, who proffers an application for a temporary dwelling permit. Behind her, the permit-processing officer bangs out gibberish on an electric typewriter, a percussive sound that follows into several of the rooms.

While this might seem like the start to some hokey industry-themed haunted house, it’s actually just part of the art. “We wanted something a little different than just walking inwe wanted to show that [Bain] is something a little different,” said Sarah Powers, one of the project members and a local mixed media artist. The bureaucratic forms are frauds thoughjust another part of the artbut some people were convinced otherwise.

One man, Powers said, was convinced that the forms and the fact that no one would give him a map were all part of orders from Homeland Security.

This “blurring of the line of reality and art” is important to project members. Another visitor to the plant saw the old-style lettering on the flocculation ballsgiant, white marble balls originally used to settle sediment in the water tanksand told Powers that they were probably valuable antiques with the original lettering. However, Powers and other members painted the letters themselves.

Throughout the walking tour of the building, it is hard to tell where art begins and the natural state of Bain ends. In one room, a pile of dust and debris is carefully arranged as part of the “Bain Oasis”a brightly lit room featuring a cracked, chipped painting of a palm tree and a water fountain in the center, spouting a continuous jet of fresh waterbut in others, the damage is coincidentally aesthetic.

No maps were given, for reasons of flow and ownership. Unlike most art exhibits, where artists’ names are clearly displayedwritten on canvases or posted on a name tag on the wallthe pieces at Bain are unclaimed. “We didn’t want to label ‘this is your art, this is your art’; it’s about a whole experience,” said Powers. Flow, like the movement of water or the revolving door of inhabitants at the plant, is an important theme. The rooms and art contain common elements that tie them together. Many rooms still make use of the workers’ color-coding system to distinguish different areas and their original use. The marble flocculation balls, which were dug up from around the Bain building, are deployed throughout the plant: One room uses them as flooring, another features plumbing packed full of the baseball-sized orbs.

Another common theme throughout is the invasionor reacquisition, depending on how you see itof the facility by the forces of nature. After the Bain building was abandoned, nature was quick to reclaim the 4-acre property. Vines grow through the windows in many rooms, and a tree has taken root on the loading dock. As part of their effort to capture and transform the past, present and future of the building, project members used these natural parts just as they used the man-made. A tree appears to grow from a sink in a supply closet, and in the old laboratory, vine and wire intermingle across the ceiling and floor, an apt symbol for a place where man once “treated” water with synthetic chemicals.

Stay long enough at the Bain exhibit and you will hear the music of Bain, as project members perform a score written by Dana Raymond, a sculptor and professor at North Carolina State University’s School of Design, in the water tanks that line the long corridor at the back of the building. The performers don’t use conventional instruments; instead, they clack together the flocculation balls and turn the squeaking rusty pipes, using the water tanks themselves as giant, acoustical speakers for the percussive sounds, with the occasional belch of mechanical buzzer. A CD of the musicwhich includes Bain-inspired songs written and recorded by other artistsis available for purchase at a desk, shaded by the rogue tree, on the loading dock.

Before you leave, be sure to spend time in the “archive room” to get a good handle on the scope of inhabitants that have used the plant since its creation. The room was originally set up by project members to house the evidence of life they found in the Bain plant, but it has taken on a life of its own as living art. Objects sit on deep wooden shelves, each labeled with a green tag describing what it is and where it was found. Like a timeline, it’s easy to see the flow of people who have used Bain; the workers, the homeless, the plants and animals, the historical society that briefly used an area on the fourth floor as an office, and most recently The Bain Project members. Found items including the odd (cryptic, back and forth messages between squatters) and the telltale marks of abandonment (bird nests, a dead snake, jars of paint samples from the various rooms).

This weekend is the final showing of The Bain Project. Afterward, the life of the building will continue, but in a different form. The Bain Project, dedicated to acknowledging and preserving the facility’s past, will then pass into its history.

For more information, visit the Bain Project Web site at www.bainproject.com.