Growing up in the suburbs in the 1970s and 80s was strangely ahistorical. Brand new asphalt roads, cul de sacs of split level homes, schools, strip malls, and baseball fields created the impression of an entire world freshly formed from blank slate.
But behind our house was a large wooded field full of secrets hinting at a hidden past: rotting wooden wagon wheels, the stone foundation of a farmhouse, and an old chicken coop in a thicket of sumac.
As I grew older, the range of my explorations increased. I found a settler’s cemetery on Bass Lake Road, a farmhouse set alight by the Maple Grove Fire Department on Fish Lake Road, abandoned gravel pits, and a Native American burial mound hidden in the back corner of a highway rest stop.
But the suburb’s efforts to erase its history were relentless. In the late 80s, the wooded field behind our house was lost to another subdivision of split levels, ball fields, and a junior high.
With few exceptions, this is the fate of most of the Twin Cities’ ruins, which almost always succumb to sprawl or redevelopment. But the process often takes decades waiting for investors, permits, and environmental cleanup while buildings crumble, creating eyesores and potentially lethal hazards for those who trespass within.
Ruins teach us about the past in ways that intact or restored structures cannot. They have stories to tell not only about their creation but also their abandonment and neglect. For the most part, these sites are hidden behind railroads, below river bluffs, or at the end of gated dirt roads. We tend to either ignore or look at them as failures, awaiting either a visionary creative reuse or the wrecking ball. They sit uncomfortably upon the urban landscape, simultaneously a reminder of jobs lost and a vague promise of future potential.
In some cases, like Can Can Wonderland, Keg & Case at the Schmidt Brewery, or the Mill City Museum, abandoned or even ruined industrial buildings have been transformed into amazing community spaces. Other sites like Malcolm Yards in Southeast Minneapolis and the Hamm’s Brewery in Saint Paul’s Eastside have elaborate plans to repurpose crumbling buildings into entertainment and shopping centers.
In fact, the first phase of the Malcolm Yards project, a food hall built in the burned out ruins of the Harris Machinery building, is set to open this month with nine eating and drinking establishments. Construction of two new apartment buildings next to the market are set to break ground this summer. It remains unclear, however, whether the developer’s ambitions to repurpose the adjacent United Crushers Grain Elevator will ever happen.
Even more elaborate are the current owner’s plans for Hamm’s, which envisions rooftop amusement rides. The sprawling Hamm’s building today is partly renovated, partly ruins, and is home to the Saint Paul Brewing Company and 11 Wells Spirits, a craft distillery. Whether the full visions for Malcolm Yards or Hamm’s will come to fruition in a post-COVID world remains to be seen.
The Fruen Mill in Bryn Mawr is particularly problematic. Industry at the site on the banks of Bassett Creek dates back to 1872, but most of what remains was built after 1920. It’s notable as the site of the first mill to manufacture breakfast cereal, but it’s been abandoned and deteriorating for fifty years. Multiple proposals to redevelop it have fallen through, most recently in 2016. Since 2005, four people trespassing on the property have been injured in falls, one fatally. Given its advanced state of deterioration, it’s probably well past time to demolish the entire structure.
Many abandoned sites become the subject of intense controversy due to conflicts between cities wanting to increase their tax base, preservationists, and local communities. Saint Paul’s Ford site redevelopment is one example, as is the abandoned Upper Harbor Terminal in North Minneapolis, where the city’s plans for an elaborate housing and entertainment complex aren’t supported by neighbors who see little benefit for local residents. Whether some of the barge terminal’s unique structures such as its four enormous concrete storage domes can be saved remains to be seen.
Another controversy is at Fort Snelling’s Upper Post Barracks. Built in the late 1800s and decommissioned in 1946, the barracks have been slowly falling apart for 75 years. Sandwiched between Highway 5 and the MSP Airport runways, preservationists have long sought to rehabilitate them. Last year, the project finally secured funding from Hennepin County and the state’s affordable housing funds to the tune of $172.5M, which is $902,893 per unit. Twenty-six buildings will be rehabbed to create 191 ostensibly affordable units. Of course, many more units could have been built with the same price someplace else. Is it really ethical or wise to rehabilitate these structures at such a massive cost? Is that the only way we can honor our past?
Allowing abandoned historic structures to fall to ruin is a legitimate form of historic preservation. After all, Fort Snelling’s original purpose was to overwrite the 10,000 year history of Bdote, serve as the epicenter of the European settlement of Minnesota, and oversee the displacement and brutal internment of the Dakota and Ojibwe people. It also actively participated in America’s slave economy, including the enslavement of Dred and Harriet Scott, whose tragic Supreme Court case brought the nation closer to civil war.
Do we honor this history by repurposing the barracks for 21st century use or by letting them continue to crumble to ruin? And, given the fact that these buildings spent more time abandoned than occupied, isn’t their restoration a form of historical dishonesty? “Rebuilding or restoration may lead visitors to believe that the structure was in use or well maintained through most of its existence, which is inaccurate and erases the traces of decline,” writes Sydney Schoof in her thesis Preservation Without Restoration: The Case for Ruins. “While this period of a building or location’s history may not be the most impressive, it cannot be ignored to create a selective history.”
To me, ruins feel like a far better answer for the Fort Snelling Upper Post.
Throughout Europe, thousands of sites from medieval abbeys to Victorian mills are preserved as ruins. Many are significant tourist attractions. Could we imagine rehabbing Glastonbury Abbey into apartments or razing the Minoan Palace of Knossos to make way for a golf course? Sometimes, ruins are the best answer.
In the ruin the harsh architectural reality is thrust upon us. The vicissitudes displayed in the ruin’s history are perhaps a truer reflection of the brutal course of events over several generations than numerous portraits of figures in doublets and hose, wigs, top hats and tail coats.M. W. Thompson, Ruins: Their Preservation and Display, as quoted in Preservation Without Restoration: The Case for Ruins, by Sydney Schoof
The Twin Cities has several notable examples of preserved ruins, including Mill City Museum and Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis, the Brickyards in Saint Paul, and Coldwater Spring near Fort Snelling. Each required significant investment to stabilize structures and ensure safe public access.
Perhaps the most compelling example is the Rock Island Swing Bridge in Inver Grove Heights, which was built in 1895 and partially demolished in 2009. Instead of destroying the entire bridge, 680 feet of the western half were converted into a recreational pier as part of Swing Bridge Park. It now offers a unique opportunity to experience the river, watch barge traffic, and view the otherwordly nighttime sight of the Marathon refinery on the opposite bank.
Elsewhere in the Twin Cities, the future is uncertain for several notable ruins. In South Saint Paul, local officials are grappling with whether or not to preserve the remains of the city’s massive meatpacking industry. For six decades, over 6,000 workers passed through the gates daily to work in the Armour meat processing plant. Today, only the gates remain and they’re under threat of demolition to make way for a 45,000 square foot “small business condo” building. The city is weighing whether to preserve, relocate, or demolish the gates. Mayor Jimmy Francis has been quoted as saying “We can’t make decisions based on nostalgia…we have to make decisions based on reality.” A bill to fund relocation of the gates didn’t advance this year in the Minnesota legislature and it now seems likely that the Gates of Armour will ultimately be demolished, a fate shared by many working class historic buildings.
Further south in Rosemount, the Gopher Ordinance Works is one of the largest industrial ruin sites in the country. Hastily constructed at the height of WWII, it sprawls across 11,000 acres and had 858 buildings. Its original purpose was to manufacture explosives for the war effort and was designed to be difficult to bomb from the air with its operations spread out over its vast area. Production at the facility ran for less than a year.
Much of the area is now owned by the University of Minnesota, which has used the land, called UMore Park, for various research purposes. In the 75 years since the war, redevelopment of the area has been scattered and the ruins of many of the original structures remain.
As they are, the ruins are a powerful testament to the epic scale of a war that left few other tangible remains in Minnesota. They clearly deserve to be preserved and made safely accessible to the public.
By contrast, only one building remains standing at the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills, where Ramsey County’s redevelopment plans seem to be proceeding at a near glacial place. We’ll soon be left with no physical evidence of the munitions factory or its largely female workforce that supplied the allies bullets during WWII.
As local and state governments grapple with what to do with abandoned structures of our past, hopefully the discussions will not be limited by the false dichotomy of choosing between redevelopment or demolition. Certainly not all of these abandoned structures can or should be saved. But, when structures can be safely secured and stabilized, preserving them as ruins is a viable third choice that honors the past and shares it with the future.
All photos by the author except as noted. The author does not recommend or advocate entering potentially unstable abandoned structures.