Can We Save the Electric Steel Elevator Site in Prospect Park?

electric-steel-elevator-2The current historic preservation issue in Minneapolis right now is not a campaign to save a building because its gingerbread ornamentation is too precious to lose.

The slightly rusty and unornamented round steel sides of the Electric Steel Elevator complex in Prospect Park, part of a large complex of tall concrete cylindrical grain silos, may face demolition. The University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents may decide to purchase this site to expand its recreational programs with what has been called a “sports bubble.”

However, a coalition of various citizen interest groups wants to teach this educational institution a history lesson.

Instead of a “sports bubble,” the University has the opportunity to be consistent with their educational goals. Creating an interpretive plaza can inform the public of the role of this entire mill elevator site. The wheat farming and milling economy has been very influential in the Minnesota economy. This recognition has not been given proper acknowledgement in Minnesota economic history.

Architectural historian Robert M. Frame has studied storage facilities that supported the state’s wheat farming and milling industries, and says steel was one of the early choices for as an alternative to wood before concrete eventually became selected as the material for thousands of grain silo complexes throughout Minnesota and the nation. The only other steel elevator in Minnesota was taken down in 1995.

A coalition of local citizens, many outside of the historic preservation movement, are opposing the U of M plan to raze these significant silos, and are sending emails to the Capital Planning & Project Management office. U of M administrators will make their decision in the next several days.

You can help teach the U of M a history lesson: send your email to: CPPM@UMN.EDU.

[Photos that follow were take by photographer Chris Faust in 2011, during the waning days of the Elevator’s operation when it was being leased by Anheuser Busch to hold barley and hops.]

electric-steel-6 electric-steel-5 electric-steel-4 electric-steel-3

About Robert Roscoe

“A camera teaches you how to see without a camera.” Dorothea Lange My professional experience includes over 36 years of architectural office experience, with the last 21 years as principal of Design For Preservation. My education includes a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History, and five years at the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota. I served 21 years on the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and I have written articles for Architecture Minnesota, a publication of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I have given lectures on preservation architecture at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and various public forums. Art photography is a main avocation for me, focusing on capturing images of abandoned parts of the built environment, and I have been featured in several art exhibitions. I have co-authored a book on County Catholic Churches and am the author of the book Milwaukee Avenue – Community Renewal in Minneapolis. Also, I am editor of the infrequently published Journal of American Rocket Science.

14 thoughts on “Can We Save the Electric Steel Elevator Site in Prospect Park?

  1. Peter Bajurny

    It’s too bad we don’t have some kind of local museum dedicated to our local milling history.

    And in a further hypothetical it’s too bad that if such a museum did exist, that no artifacts from this site would be donated to such a museum.

  2. Ethan OstenEthan Osten

    This site should be a park. The area around here has very few open green spaces; in a few years, when the rest of the lots around here have filled in with mid- to high-rise apartment buildings, the need will be even more visible and acute. The park is centrally-located and convenient to all modes, but distant enough to not sap the station area of mixed-use vitality.

    Make it like Gas Works Park in Seattle. Give it a hill and a field, and you’d have dozens or students and neighbors lounging or playing at any given time throughout the day. Fence off the elevators and seal them tight. Their massive presence in the sculpted green landscape would be an instant icon, and if funds could ever be secured to renovate at least one wing, the view from an observation deck would be a powerful attraction, shorter than the Witch’s Hat but no less dramatic.

    Set aside for a moment whether or not the silos should be preserved because they’re historic. They should be preserved because their potential so vastly outweighs the University’s proposed use.

  3. cobo Rodreges

    I don’t think everything historical is worth saving. If a building no longer has economically viable utility & doesn’t contribute positively to sense of place it should be OK to tear it down. This isn’t the metropolitan building we’re talking about, these are grain silos……

    They have served their function and now should be replaced. Im OK with the universities plan, but most other plans sound OK too.

  4. MN-Guy

    I don’t think that everything old should necessarily be torn down and replaced by something newer and “better”, but similarly I don’t think that age necessarily makes something worthy of preservation. In particular I think that labeling these as architecturally significant structures is a pretty large leap in logic. This is a tactic often used by NIMBY neighborhood groups who nominally favor high density in-fill development, just never in their own neighborhood.

    These are commercial structures that have outlived their usefulness, are a danger to the public, and they occupy an absolutely prime piece of land that could be used for a great combination of green space and high density development (the idea of putting in a sports bubble is laughable). If we don’t as a region aren’t willing to put high density development in places like this then we are only going to see housing prices continue to go up and push it out to the suburbs.

  5. Cad K

    First, just because an owner sells a property does not mean it is not viable for the intended use. Imagine if every time someone sold an apartment building we said “oh better tear it down it’s no longer viable.” This is about quick profit versus long term management.

    Second, this is not debate about preservation versus high density, the proposed use would lower land use intensity. The neighborhood group opposing demolition has long supported more dwelling units in the vicinity. Calling people NIMBY everytime you disagree with them is very Trumpian.

    Third, grain elevators play an important role in food security for the enitire world. The reasons behind these being empty need to be looked at in depth. Agriculture is on a long cycle, sometimes though there are huge surpluses of crops, in recent years when this happens there have been issues finding places to store this food. Demolishing these will only contribute to that problem.

    Fourth, I keep hearing these are “dangerous”, yet sports (the propsed new use) injures many more people than grain elevators. Sports even can be lethal, both form concussions and fatalities from constucting stadiums, somone died building US bank stadium.

    Fifth, Grain Elevators are icons of Minneapolis and fundamental to our identity. Tearing these down, even if vacant is like Europe tearing down castles, or china tearing down the great wall because they are no longer “commercially viable”.

    Thanks for your consideration, please support preservation.

    1. cobo Rodreges

      These contribute nothing to food security! There are no shortage of grain elevators. If we need more they are relatively quick and cheap to build, and it it makes more sense to locate them near the source of production or the point of consumption… Downtown Minneapolis is neither (it used to be a point of consumption but is no longer). Also Grain elevators are not used for long term storage, they act as more of a buffer when supply is higher than demand which is usually a seasonal arc as its all harvested at once..

      I don’t see how having ugly outdated grain elevators on prime real estate contributes to a city character. It makes the neighborhood seem run down.. and unlike castles you can’t go in them, Nothing historical happened in them, they just stored grain for short periods of time.. We have the Mill city museum which is awesome, but do we really need to keep the identity of “mill city” when no milling occurs here anymore?

      But maybe I’m biased having been born/raises/educated in rural MN. When I see a poorly positioned grain elevator on a valuable piece of transit accessible land in all I see is pointless waste.

  6. Morgan Zehner

    I didn’t read the article but if there is a developer that can adaptively re-use the the grain elevators it’s the University of Minnesota. They have a ton of money and don’t pay an equity cost of capital because they are a nonprofit organization.

    Shame on the U of MN for being so narrow minded, a bad neighbor and poor steward of making Minneapolis and Minnesota a special, unique place with a distinct heritage and culture.

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