How do you solve a problem like (old, unused) grain elevators?

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The Electric Steel Elevator, circa 1910.

Grain elevators are often the first structures visitors see when they enter Minneapolis, almost from any direction — an urban landmark and symbol of the area’s industrial past.

Mostly unused and often unusable, they are sometimes an attractive nuisance, enticing so-called urban explorers with a hankering to see what’s inside. A handful of serious injuries and four deaths caused a Minneapolis council committee this week to approve an ordinance to charge trespassers for rescue costs.

All that presents questions for policy makers: What to do with structures that clearly qualify for protection under local, state and even national landmark laws — but that have proven difficult to repurpose in ways that make economic sense.

All of those issues came up this month when the City Council denied a demolition request by owners of the Electric Steel Elevator, a 32-bin storage facility near the University of Minnesota and TCF Stadium. Riverland Ag Corp. already had a deal to sell the land to the university after demolition was completed, but it needed the Heritage Preservation Commission and the City Council to go along.

Neither did. The commission, on a 6-3 vote, denied the demolition permit in July, a decision upheld by unanimous votes of both the Minneapolis Zoning and Planning committee in August and the City Council earlier this month. That clears the path for the city’s planning staff to prepare a historic designation study of the elevator complex at 25th Avenue SE near TCF Bank Stadium.

City of Minneapolis
The elevator complex at 25th Avenue SE near TCF Bank Stadium, circled in yellow.

The decision disappointed Riverland executives who had argued that the building had no economic use, was not a good target for adaptive reuse and was a public safety hazard. They did not, however, deny the historic significance of the complex and offered to create an extensive photographic and engineering record of the industrial site before it was demolished.

Electric Steel is not a typical grain elevator. It fills an early chapter in the state’s milling and transportation history as one of the last remaining steel grain elevators in the nation. Designed by prominent structural engineer C.A.P. Turner and built by the American Bridge Co., Electric Steel qualifies for at least four of the city’s seven criteria for protection. Only one is necessary for landmark status.

Robert Frame is the senior historian for the engineering firm of Mead & Hunt and is the author of “Grain Elevators in Minnesota,” an extensive study of rural and terminal grain elevators in the state prior to 1945. Frame said Electric Steel was built at a time when owners were looking for alternatives to wood. Brick, steel and tile were tried, but reinforced concrete won out, making steel structures like Electric Steel rare. The only other steel elevator in the state, Pioneer Steel Elevator, was taken down in 1995.

“In terms of big elevator experimentation in Minnesota, it’s just a really important example,” Frame said.

That the building was engineered by Turner, who also designed the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth and the Fort Snelling-Mendota Bridge, is also significant, Frame said. “If he touched something, you pay attention to it. If his name is on the plans, it makes a structure stand out.”

But Riverland President Craig Reiners told the heritage commission that while historic, the elevator is no longer economically viable due to changes in railroad rate structures. Specifically, railroads prefer elevators that can handle trains with up to 100 cars and with automation that can load or unload those cars in half a day. Attempts by the company to market the facility for long-term grain storage were not successful, and it closed the complex two years ago.

“You know, I feel almost a failure because that was my job as president of the company, to find revenue for this facility,” Reiners said. “And even just as a garage or storage unit, it had no use for anybody.”

To look at a potential sale or reuse of the complex, Riverland hired Oliver Real Estate Services, which was unable to find many reuses of grain elevators around the country. “It doesn’t have floors,” said the firm’s Doug Johnson. “It doesn’t have windows. It doesn’t have infrastructure … This is an industrial complex that has outlived its useful life.”

Without an economic reuse, the owners are being asked to preserve a cultural resource at their own expense. “Is the public prepared to step up, buy it, maintain it going into the future?” Johnson asked.

Reiners also said that the company has taken steps to keep explorers out with only partial success. “It scares me to death,” he said. “I’ve been in these elevators for, like I said, 42 years. If you have the right equipment and knowing what you’re doing they can be very, very dangerous.”

City of Minneapolis
Riverland executives argued that the building had no economic use, was not a good target for adaptive reuse and was a public safety hazard.

Those who break in and who don’t know what they’re doing face even greater danger. “I wouldn’t do it myself and I know where to go,” Reiners said. The owners surrounded the plant with tall steel fencing topped by razor wire. There are cameras and alarms that summon police.

And still, people get in. “We could raise that fence another 10 feet,” he said. “Wouldn’t matter.” After an early summer accident at the Fruen Mill in Minneapolis, the Star Tribune compiled a list that included nine falls leading to four deaths in mill incidents since 1979.

Riverland found sympathy from at least one commissioner, University of Minnesota advisor Susan Hunter Weir, who said one of the deaths involved a student of hers. “The problem is you’re going to have 18 year olds who are going to want to do risky, reckless, stupid things — usually involving alcohol — and I wish there was something you could do about it,” she said. “But frankly I’m not sure that you can.” Still, Hunter Weir voted against demolition.

When the appeal reached the city council, the same arguments about economics, lack of reuse and safety were not enough to overcome the structure’s obvious historic status. Council members did not feel Riverland had proven that there was no possible reuse, something required to override the protection presumed in city ordinance.

“We need the applicant to prove that it is unsafe and there is no alternative for this site,” said Council Member Andrew Johnson. “As we’ve seen, though, the owner’s representative has said it is yet to be determined if there is an alternative reuse of this site.” Johnson cited the recent sale of a grain elevator in his ward that is being investigated for reuse.

The zoning committee also heard from a Minneapolis architect who is an officer of the neighborhood organization near the Electric Steel Elevator. Eric Amel said the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association opposes demolition because it thinks not enough work has gone into searching for reuse plans.

“This facility is remnant of the foundation of the economy that’s driven this community and we should … celebrate that heritage,” Amel said. The neighborhood group wants a moratorium on grain elevator demolitions in the area known as the Southeast Minneapolis Industrial area until a grain elevator study and comprehensive plan can be completed.

Amel suggested a handful of ideas from converting the complex to an art center to using them as server farms or silos for housing computer servers.

But even some of those who support historic preservation recognize the difficulty of reusing industrial sites, including grain elevators. Heritage commissioner Chris Hartnett, who voted against demolition, said his work as a structural engineer has shown him that the work is doable, but difficult.

“I spent about nine months working with the Pillsbury A Mill trying to figure out what to do with those elevators, those silos, and the reality was that they were just too heavy because they were concrete,” Hartnett said. He recalls thinking that it they were only made of steel it would be easier.

“This is asking for a creative, innovative and frankly — oh yeah — it’s going to be expensive. But it’s doable, he said. “I mean you can cut these things apart. You can slice them. And you can put trusses in and support them. And it will work.”

But those techniques present what grain elevator historian Frame termed a Catch 22: If you make changes to the exterior of the structures you will likely make them ineligible for listing on the federal register but without that listing a project is not eligible for lucrative federal tax credits. During research for possible reuse of an elevator that was part of the Washburn-Crosby mill in the Minneapolis Mill District, Frame said he found just a few uses that retained eligibility. One was an office in Philadelphia that used the silos as a pedestal for the penthouse-type structure on top.

“It used the structure in a peculiar but effective way,” Frame said. The Calhoun Isles condos in Minneapolis were built into a concrete elevator but the openings cut into it would likely make it ineligible for tax credits if built today. The prospective buyers of the Fruen Mill are still examining reuse and told the Star Tribune that it is unclear how much of the existing buildings will remain. And Project for Pride in Living, the low-income and affordable housing non-profit that owns the Bunge Elevator site, where a woman died earlier in the summer, is unsure of its plans and unsure how much of the structure would be incorporated.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The prospective buyers of the Fruen Mill are still examining reuse options.

Duncan Hay is a historian with the National Park Service who, like Frame, is active in the Society for Industrial Archeology. Hay has written about the special challenges of preserving industrial sites. “The sites tend to be big, dirty and complex with potentially nightmarish maintenance costs and the specter of toxic residues or other hidden danger,” he wrote in Preservation Nation.

The New York-based historian said in an interview that grain elevators usually generate affection and a desire to keep them around, unlike some closed factories that elicit negative sentiment from those put out of work. “The challenge is, what do you do with them when the industry has moved elsewhere?” he asked. “These are essentially single-purpose machines. When it becomes obsolete, what are you going to do with it?”

Hay cited an elevator in Akron, Ohio that was repurposed as a hotel. A Buffalo businessman has reused some elevators to store grain for a growing craft brewing business and is looking into an ethanol plant in an area he has dubbed Silo City.

But many still-standing concrete elevators are left because it is so expensive to tear them down. Steel elevators, however, have scrap value that makes demolition more cost-effective.

Hay said there is debate in industrial preservation circles about whether federal preservation rules — known as the Secretary of Interior standards — are too strict for industrial facilities. Some say they should be loosened to help renovation and reuse projects move forward. Such buildings have likely been altered over time as needs of the industry changed. Others, however, are uncomfortable with any exterior alterations.

“The question is, would you rather have it there in altered form or have it gone?” Hay said.

City Council Member Cam Gordon, whose ward includes Electric Steel and several other unused elevators, wrote to residents of his ward that he wants to form a Grain Elevator Task Force to talk about both concerns and opportunities.

“I am very concerned about the ongoing safety issues posed by these buildings,” Gordon wrote, “and want to find way to honor the important contribution they make to our history while also moving them to either adaptive reuse or demolition in a timely manner.”

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Rockway on 09/18/2015 - 09:48 am.

    The “if it’s old, it’s historic” argument is tiresome. What arguments do the council and the Heritage Preservation Commission present for the value of maintaining glorified industrial blight? Why isn’t the burden on them to prove the utility of preserving these death traps?

  2. Submitted by Adam Miller on 09/18/2015 - 10:34 am.

    This is crazy

    These buildings are crumbling, useless and dangerous. The way to preserve them is through photographs and models. The notion that we must keep them in tact because they represents an idea or an example of a person that some clique has decided is “important” does nothing except undermine the prosperity of our city.

  3. Submitted by Brian Krause on 09/18/2015 - 11:31 am.

    Keep them as a memorial

    We should keep them to remind us how the greatest industrial powerhouse the world has ever known unilaterally disarmed under the banner of “free trade” and “globalization”.

    Or we could bulldoze them for more boring glass and steel “luxury” apartments.

  4. Submitted by Serafina Scheel on 09/18/2015 - 12:25 pm.

    Look at other possible reuses

    I am a neighbor in Prospect Park with a deep and abiding affection for the grain elevators. I was at the neighborhood meeting where the owners discussed their intent to demolish these elevators and sell the land to the University, which had no current plans for it.

    People seem to see these structures as both intriguing and a challenge. Why not use that urge and explore making an all-ages adventure play park in Minneapolis? Something like Berkeley Marina’s Adventure Playground, (see http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/04/334896321/where-the-wild-things-play), but with a Minnesota twist? Indoor space for lots of movement in the winter, room for kid-designed and built structures. A research and training ground for youth and playworker training at the UMN. Other adventure-based activities for teens and adults. As beloved as our Minneapolis parks are, this is one area where we’re lacking.

    • Submitted by Andrew Rockway on 09/21/2015 - 01:25 pm.

      Thanks for the link, Serafina! An atypical park (or my preference, a well-stocked “makerspace”) would be positive uses of this parcel. Hopefully the City considers these options.

  5. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 09/18/2015 - 02:16 pm.

    … Then again,

    On the other hand…

    These monoliths add character.

    During the 20th century, many beautiful buildings were torn down because, at the time, no one could come up with workable solutions. And they are gone.

    I’m not a save-every-old-structure person, but, looking at the city as a whole, buildings such as these add character, therefore they add measurable monetary value.

  6. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 09/18/2015 - 03:11 pm.

    This is ridiculous as the study has long since been done. The Bridal Veil alternative urban area-wide review and ‘master plan’ was completed a long time ago and my neighborhood, Prospect Park, signed off on it. The Peavey Electric Steel Elevators were seen as significant then, but doomed to be torn down for other uses. That plan was incorporated into the City of Minneapolis comprehensive plan and pretty much what Riverview has in mind. Let the demolition and salvage begin.

    • Submitted by Serafina Scheel on 09/19/2015 - 11:24 am.

      That master plan called for further study of several of the elevator sites, including these, I believe, as a high priority for research. It also called for looking to see if adaptive reuse of industrial buildings were possible before demolition.

      • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 09/20/2015 - 01:59 pm.

        No, it didn’t; the AUAR already provided that study and any further study is sort of up to those who would purchase and redevelop the properties within the Southeast or Bridal Veil Industrial Area, and this is what must happen to the Peavey Electric Steel Elevator (PESE) complex, derailed temporarily by the Heritage Preservation Commission (doing their job, but wrong in this instance).

        The other elevators were certainly not historically significant and some of the big concrete monoliths have been demolished already and the land redeveloped for other uses.

        At the time, right to 2013, the PESEs were handling grain (folks are wrong about it being in disrepair; that doesn’t happen in a couple of years and I know of no trespassing issues at this site), but it was and is obsolete and I can’t for the life of me think of anything useful to do with it now but demolition, salvaging and recycling anything usable to make way for something that will work for the location. They could and probably should save some appropriate and significant pieces of the elevators and document the operations of the place, perhaps as part of a museum exhibition in any redevelopment, but it just doesn’t make sense to have much else around any longer.

        As near as I can recall, there were two options suggested in the plan for the PESEs, the only historically significant terminal grain elevators in the city: some sort of preservation of a portion of the structure after partial demolition, i.e., a few ruins left after demolition analogous to the Mill City Ruins Park across the river and upstream, or demolition and reuse for something else. The former requires some major public investment and a workable plan and the latter, other than the usual revenue for U of MN stuff, does not (if indeed the new athletic facilities are what is in mind here).

        Let the Minneapolis City Council consider the current proposal and set it on the rails again with appropriate conditions.

        • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/22/2015 - 07:38 am.

          Cogent

          One of the most cogent comments ever posted in these pages.

          Thanks for good writing and sensible perspectives.

  7. Submitted by George LaPray on 09/18/2015 - 03:21 pm.

    History

    I was very fortunate to have employment which brought me into direct contact with virtually all of the major grain elevators in the Twin Cities when they were still active. My duties required me to inspect the machinery within from top to bottom and observe their unloading and loading of grain. In the early 1970’s I had 65 separate grain handling facilities within the Twin Cities on my inventory. These grain elevators employed thousands of workers and more thousands had employment as a direct result of the economic activity these elevators generated, railroad workers, State grain samplers and inspectors, hordes of traders, managers and clerks, Minneapolis was still the “Mill City”. The economy of much of outstate Minnesota, the Dakotas and most of Montana was directly tied to the grain elevators of the Twin Cities.

    To my knowledge there is nowhere in North America where a terminal grain elevator has been preserved to explain to new generations what these structures were, how they worked and the role they played in the economy. The Mill City Museum is perhaps the best attempt, and a worthy effort, but the facility is not a true terminal elevator. The shear monumental size of these structures may mean that we shall never see such a successful preservation result.

    Unless you were directly involved in the grain, milling or transportation industry these structures were often a source of mystery or confusion to the general public, even more so in recent decades as changing industry patterns increasingly caused physical grain handling to bypass traditional terminal markets like the Twin Cities. I am surprised and disappointed at some of the comments which indicate not just indifference but disdain for these, to me, beautiful structures. When they are all gone the Twin Cities will be a less interesting place.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/18/2015 - 03:41 pm.

    The future of the grain elevators

    What is the likelihood that they will be sitting untouched in 10-20 years? Exceedingly high, given the huge costs to repurpose even one? If preservationists want to preserve then, then find the money to rehab them. Until you do or they are torn down, people will die because they are still there. Also preservationists don’t preserve all houses or buildings from a former era, unless they make up an historical district. Pick a few to save and tear down the rest.

  9. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/18/2015 - 08:19 pm.

    Historical Preservation

    One commentator mentioned that the silos are a remnant from a short period in our history. I thought I would add a little perspective to that statement.

    From roughly the 1880s through the 1930s, Minneapolis was the milling capital of the world. And before and after that fifty year time period we were pretty high in the standings when it came to flour production.

    The Twin Cities exists and is prosperous for a variety of reasons, from the fur trade of the 18th and early 19th centuries, lumber that rebuilt Chicago after the fire, and flour from the many farms that sprung up after Indians were unceremoniously driven out. Also this was the farthest navigable point on the Mississippi River and the only falls. That made the Twin Cities a natural stopping point and the logical place to build mills, including flour mills as the lumber played out.

    Those mills and silos are the reason we have firms like Pillsbury and General Mills here. WCCO radio and TV started as Washburn Crosby Company, the forerunner of General Mills. St. Louis Park has the first concrete silo in the world, still standing near the Nordicware plant, a proof of concept design built in 1889.

    So no, milling is not some minor, short-lived, and inconsequential event in our past. Quite the opposite, you can make a good case that grain made the Twin Cities into the major metropolitan area we have today. That isn’t to say we can or should preserve every grain elevator out there, but we should make a concerted effort to preserve a representation to show our past to future generations. Otherwise you get people who grow up thinking the Cities sprang into being from whole cloth, never having been fiber, thread, or weaved.

    • Submitted by David Fehlan on 09/19/2015 - 12:16 pm.

      Well said

      In addition to Pillsbury and General Mills, here are a few firms that started here or are still here due to the benefits of Mpls as a grain storage/transportation/trading/processing hub:

      – Cargill
      – Inernational Multifoods (remnants are at Cargill and Smuckers, I believe)
      – Peavey (became part of Conagra; Conagra Milling remains a large player)
      – Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)
      – Harvest States (now Cenex-Harvest States or CHS)
      – Minneapolis Grain Exchange

      I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to include firms like Land O’ Lakes or Hubbard Milling/Hubbard Feeds and absent our grain and milling foundation, would we have a Federal Reserve Bank, would the Burlington Northern railroad have grown so large?

      Back to the original topic: We have already saved parts of a few grain elevators and mills and other cities have done the same. I don’t see the historical benefit of saving the entire terminal complex. If the steel construction is deemed important, save a tank or two (possibly for relocation) and let the redevelopment proceed.

  10. Submitted by Ian Stade on 09/18/2015 - 10:30 pm.

    I voted against interim protection

    Three heritage preservation commissioners voted against interim protection and I was one of them. I did so because I was convinced by the owner that it didn’t have a contempory solution to continue its original use and they had a buyer, the University of Minnesota. The University is the most likely buyer, considering its proximity to campus. I also wasn’t convinced holding the property hostage for a year+ to see if some kind of savior will swoop in with a preservation solution was fair to the seller and buyer.

    I don’t dispute this isn’t an important historic structure but it is also a structure that could kill an inexperienced urban explorer and even if that is improbable, why risk it for a building that will be razed anyway?

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