Factories don't attract much notice these days.
They're usually simple boxes consisting of concrete walls, space-frame roofs, standard windows (if necessary) and maybe a dash of color to gin up at least a little visual excitement.
Utilitarian factory design goes back a long way. (Think of all those unadorned brick and stone mills from the 19th century.) But there was a time when industrial architecture was quite beautiful.
In the Twin Cities, what might be called the golden age of factory architecture extended from about 1900 to the mid-1930s. During that period, even the humblest factories were often dressed up in styles ranging from Classical Revival to Arts and Crafts to Art Deco.
A particularly fine example in Minneapolis was the Cream of Wheat factory, built in 1904 at the corner of N. 1st Avenue and 5th Street, behind the magnificent old West Hotel (1884-1940) on Hennepin Avenue.
One of the few factories built downtown after 1900, it was a product of the so-called City Beautiful movement, which was just beginning to flourish at the time. Inspired by the gleaming white architecture of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (where Cream of Wheat cereal was introduced to the public), the movement sought to beautify cities like Minneapolis through grandiose public improvements and the construction of classically inspired buildings.
One of Cream of Wheat's founders and its longtime treasurer, Frederic W. Clifford, was undoubtedly the force behind the unusual new factory. Clifford had an abiding interest in art and architecture and over his career served on numerous civic commissions and foundations.
Under his guidance, the company staged an architectural competition for the factory. Ten local architects submitted proposals, all Classical Revival in style. The winner, perhaps not surprisingly, was Harry Jones, who also happened to be designing a huge mansion for Clifford at the time on Clifton Avenue.
But even without an inside track on the job, Jones was more than worthy of the commission. He was a superb architect, and he would soon go on to design his masterpiece — the mighty Butler Square Building (1906) — just a block away at N. 1st Avenue and 6th Street.
For Cream of Wheat, Jones produced an elegant six-story building clad in yellow brick and adorned with terra-cotta ornament. A writer for the Engineering Record, in a long piece on the building published in October 1904, said it resembled "a concert hall or conservatory more than ... a factory," and he wasn't far off the mark.
Jones larded the front facade on 5th with features rarely associated with industrial architecture, including stained-glass windows on the ground floor, a second-floor balcony guarded by a pair of fanciful griffins, inset Corinthian columns rising through the middle floors, and an arcaded sixth floor sporting plenty of classical froufrou in the form of garlands, swags, festoons and cartouches. A heavy cornice terminated the proceedings in fine fashion.
Behind all of this architectural embellishment was a fairly standard loft building constructed around iron columns and girders designed to bear industrial-strength loads.
A reporter for the Minneapolis Journal noted this dichotomy, writing: "To a certain extent the character of the business carried on inside will be an enigma to the passerby who is accustomed to link the word factory in his mind's eye with a plain angular building of red brick."
In fact, the actual manufacturing of the company's product — a hot breakfast cereal made from a milling byproduct known as wheat middlings — was accomplished on just one floor of the building, the third. The two floors above, despite their architectural elaboration, were essentially nothing more than bins for storing wheat.
The two lower floors offered an interesting mix of uses. The ground floor contained a large shipping room as well as the company's offices and a richly paneled directors' boardroom. At the rear was a thoughtful touch ahead of its time: a small room for storing bicycles. The second floor included a small cafe that served the company's largely female workforce. A "rest room" next to it provided a place for employees to take breaks.
Outside, along 5th, was yet another unexpected amenity in the form of a gated "Italian" garden for use by employees during the summer months. I haven't seen any photographs of employees in the garden, and it's not clear whether it was ever fully developed with plantings, garden furniture and the like.
The factory's rather modest manufacturing capacity would in the end prove to be its undoing. By the 1920s, Cream of Wheat was booming, thanks in part to aggressive advertising, and the company needed a much larger manufacturing facility. This was accomplished in 1928 when the company opened a new plant on Stinson Boulevard in northeast Minneapolis.
After Cream of Wheat decamped to its new plant, the factory on 5th Street stood vacant until 1931, when it was transformed into a parking garage. I suspect it was among the first conversions of this type in the city's history.
The building's second life as a garage didn't last long. The fine old factory that had been hailed in 1904 as a model of industrial design was torn down in 1939. The site then became a parking lot, which it remains today.
A little over 20 years later, the Cream of Wheat Co. was also gone, purchased by the National Biscuit Co. (Nabisco). Other owners have since come along but Cream of Wheat cereal remains one of the oldest brands on the American breakfast table.
The company's Stinson Boulevard plant, an excellent work of industrial architecture in its own right, also remains. In 2006 it was converted to apartments and is now known as the CW Lofts.
Larry Millett is an architecture critic and author. He can be reached at larrymillett.com.