Down by the old mill stream

The opponents of heritage conservation and adaptive reuse are usually overjoyed when a mishap like fire destroys a building on a site that they would rather see redeveloped as a big box shopping mall or something equally visionary.

But sometimes all is not lost – the Parthenon for instance was blown up when being used to store gunpowder in the seventeenth century, yet it remains as a much admired ruin.

Here is a newer ruin which in its own way is also admirable. (Photos SteveSchmeiser and MS&R)

It is the remains of the Washburn “A” flour mill in Minneapolis, Minnesota, now adaptively reused by the architects Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle as the Mill City Museum:

The Mill City Museum is housed in one of the original flour mills built along the shores of the Mississippi in Minneapolis. The building was named the Washburn A Mill and opened in 1874. The mill exploded four years later, due to bad ventilation, claiming 18 lives. The owners completed a new Washburn A Mill and continued operations in 1880, and was the largest and most technologically advanced mill in the world. The mill could grind enough flour in one day to make 12 million loaves of bread.

The Minneapolis milling industry began to decline in the 1920s although The Washburn A Mill continued production until 1965. The building was heavily damaged by fire in 1991. The city cleaned up the wreckage, preserved some of the orginal architecture, and built the Mill City Museum inside the ruins.

The museum offers a variety of programs and exhibits that help visitors understand the history of the milling industry and the impact it had on the city of Minneapolis.

Below the Museum is Mill Ruins Park (photo by anonymist) opened in 2001 to celebrate the history of 19th-century ruins that were once mills and powered by St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River.

At the time, flour became what put Minneapolis on the map, as it was exported around the nation and the world. The Minneapolis mills and canals made up the largest direct-drive, water-powered facilities in the world. The historic tailrace canal carried water from the mill turbines back to the river.

One of the world’s finest bloggers, Jason Kottke of lived in Minneapolis in the late 90s and has posted about his affection for this ruined building, with numerous interesting links. Highly recommended.

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