In the first of a new series of essays on indelible architectural histories in Minnesota, architect Thomas Meyer, FAIA, muses on the rich psychological resonance and improbable survival of the Washburn Crosby A Mill in Minneapolis
“What we see reverberates in the memory of what we have seen; new experience always percolates through old, leaving a hint of its flavor as it passes. We live, in this sense, in a ‘remembered present.’”
—Adam Zeman, Consciousness: A User’s Guide
The ghost of Reddy Kilowatt, a smiling three-story neon lightbulb astride the riverfront Main Street Hydro Plant in Minneapolis, still points with lightning-bolt arms to the alternating messages “electricity is penny cheap” and “live better electrically.” The big sign is physically long gone, but for those of us who knew him Reddy remains a presence, brightening the night sky and casting watery images on the river. He is the wise guy of a sober riverfront neon family of North Star Blanket, Pillsbury Flour, Gold Medal Flour, Mill City Museum, and Guthrie marquee spires.
Everyone has his or her own idiosyncratic mental map that connects remembered internal landmarks to the here-and-now external world. These maps are especially rich in historic areas that over time have accumulated layers of information and memories through additions, removals, weathering, and the wares left by generations. Even the experiences of others through stories, old photos, and myths leave their marks on these maps. Much of the meaning and affection we hold for a place or a building—or indeed for other people—comes from this layering over time. Similarly, our first understanding and appreciation of new people and new places is colored by what we have previously experienced and the tension between what is familiar and what is fresh. A rich and memorable experience touches a cord of the familiar, primal, and universal, even as it surprises with its uniqueness and immediacy.
A prime architectural case in point is the Washburn Crosby A Mill—now part of the Mill City Museum—in Minneapolis’ St. Anthony Falls Historic District. Built as an ordinary, utilitarian mill among many along the riverfront, it carries the scars of a long and hard life, but it has transformed in our experience to an icon of the city’s identity and a contemporary center of civic life. Where millers toiled and lost limbs in the dust and clatter of whirling belts and pulleys, people now come for opera, weddings, a farmer’s market, a museum, and just to be there. Its great location on the river in a thriving redeveloped area explains much of the draw, but its history adds layers that enrich the present-day attraction.
Indeed, few if any buildings in Minnesota have had a history as dynamic as the A Mill’s. Built in 1874, it exploded catastrophically in May 1878, leveling five other mills, setting several blocks ablaze, and killing 18 workers. Immediately rebuilt, it was for a time the largest flour mill in the U.S. and a centerpiece of “the flour milling capitol of the world.” It burned again in 1928 and was again rebuilt, continuing as the home of ever-evolving milling technologies and the birthplace of Betty Crocker and WCCO radio before the building closed in 1965. In the decades that followed, it rested quietly, a stone hulk still flanked on the river side by its grain elevators but now crowded by bleak mounds of barge-delivered sand and gravel. On the city side, a block-wide railyard that brought grain and took away flour fell into disuse as urban life migrated away from the river.
But even as this structure that had throbbed continuously for 91 years with the flow of water, wheat, flour, and laborers now stood silently, another kind of energy was emerging. In the 1970s, developer Ben Miller, who had come to the mill as a boy with his father by horse and wagon to deliver flour bags, purchased the complex from General Mills as a sentimental investment. Later, architect Peter Hall created a delightful live/work studio there among milling machines while serving as a kind of agent and watchman for the building. I worked there with Hall for two years exploring reuse ideas for the A Mill. In the 1980s, the City of Minneapolis purchased much of the riverfront, including the A Mill, for redevelopment and boarded it up. The Minnesota Historical Society was expanding its interest in the riverfront, and the A Mill’s historic importance was recognized with National Historic Landmark status in 1983.
Then, on a cold February night in 1991, fire again brought devastation to the A Mill. A huge and spectacular blaze lit the riverfront as flour dust, machinery, and wood building structure were engulfed. Homeless people seeking warmth were thought to have started a fire that got out of control. As the fire burned into the next day, firefighters trained their high-pressure hoses on the dangerously unstable stone walls to collapse them into the fire. Minnesota Historical Society director Nina Archabal later recalled: “Without having time to check with my own board or to check with anybody, I called [City Council member and later Mayor] Sharon Sayles Belton, who . . . had been active on the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board, had come to meetings herself, understood the riverfront, and cared about it. I got to her and asked Sharon to ask the fire chief to take the hoses off the building, that we would like to look at it and at least see if something could be done. At that point, the journey began in earnest toward the creation of Mill City Museum.”
The instability of the ruins brought urgency to the City’s indeterminate redevelopment plans and to hopes for a presence for the Minnesota Historical Society at St. Anthony Falls. Soon planning for the A Mill’s next chapter began, culminating in 2003 in the Mill City Museum. Because of the museum, many now know much of the building’s complex history. But even for those who know little of the specifics, it is evident from the mill’s patina that much has happened within these walls. Today, in the “remembered present,” a noisy fifth-grade field trip, an open-air opera, and a daughter’s wedding are experienced and enriched through layers of memory.