Preservationists are mobilizing to save a unique steel grain elevator complex that has stood beside the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus for more than a century.
The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota recently called on its supporters to urge the university’s Board of Regents not to approve demolition of the Electric Steel Elevator. The complex sits just east of TCF Bank Stadium, and the university hopes to move a recreational sports dome and baseball field there.
The regents are expected to vote on the demolition Oct. 13.
The defining feature of the 4.7-acre property is its group of 32 steel grain silos, experimental precursors to the concrete silos that later became synonymous with Twin Cities milling architecture. They were built between 1901 and 1914.
“There’s a lot of things about the grain elevators that speak to our origins as a state and also our origins as a city in Minneapolis,” said Erin Hanafin Berg with the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. “Minneapolis wouldn’t be Minneapolis without its grain milling history.”
The likely razing of the property is also somewhat unusual because the City Council voted in 2015 to block demolition there and give the properties temporary protection pending a historic designation study. That study was never finished, however, and the protection expired Sept. 12.
“It concerns me — [the city] dropping the ball,” said Eric Amel, an architect living in the Prospect Park neighborhood who has spearheaded preservation efforts. “That didn’t help any of us on this thing.”
City spokesman Casper Hill said the city intended to complete the study, but “there was not enough resources to do so.”
But it may not have mattered. The university says it does not need to apply for land use approvals for this project — such as a demolition permit — because it has authority over construction on university property, said Monique MacKenzie, the U’s director of planning and space.
Amel sees the steel elevators as distinct from the concrete elevators elsewhere in the city.
“They represent an era of experimentation, trying to get away from wood elevators that were more combustible,” Amel said. “So this was the first attempt at doing nonflammable, noncombustible elevator design.”
He said they could be reused for a variety of purposes, including data storage, a heat and energy plant, or student housing.
But a study by university found that “due to the property’s unique construction and advanced age, it is a poor candidate for any adaptive reuse that would be consistent with the University’s needs, mission, or operational model,” according to a staff report submitted to the regents. The report said the U intends to donate historically important components of the property to the Mill City Museum.
Another problem: The elevator has been attracting urban explorers.
“Though the University has implemented extensive safety and security measures, the property continues to present a public safety hazard and remains a magnet for trespassers and vandals,” the report said.
Reusing grain elevators can be difficult. A man hoping to turn a grain elevator at Hiawatha Avenue and 41st Street into apartments is now mulling self-storage instead — due to the expense of turning it into housing. But at least one other housing plan is still on the books: Project for Pride in Living has proposed converting the Como area’s Bunge elevator into apartments.