Look Up

Just east of TCF Bank Stadium sits an open air museum of old, decommissioned silos and grain elevators. Though visible from much of East Bank, most of us neglect to notice these towering monuments to a bygone era. Encumbered, as we are, with thoughts of midterms and papers, we so often forget to look up and look out as we shuffle from class to class, failing to appreciate the urban sculptures in our own backyards. And what sculptures we are missing.

There’s something strangely beautiful about these old silos and elevators. Part of it is the architecture. Massive and unadorned, it’s clear that these structures were designed for one and only one purpose: the storage of grain. They certainly weren’t meant to be pretty. And yet it’s precisely in virtue of this utilitarian design that they look so grand and imposing. But it’s not just the architecture. Beneath their veneer of chipped paint and broken windows, these silos and elevators also exude a sense of resilience. The fact that they’re still standing after so many years of neglect, after having fared so many Minnesotan winters, almost leads to one to believe that they’re eternal.

But, of course, they aren’t eternal. The oldest of the exhibits in our industrial museum is only 115 years old. Constructed at the beginning of the last century, the Electric Steel elevator, as it was called, inaugurated a boom in Minneapolis grain production. In fact, all of the elevators and silos east of campus are artifacts of this former era, an era when the Mill City produced an eighth of the grain in the US, much of which went to fueling the flour mills to which this city owes its moniker. Now those days are gone and the once vibrant grain elevators lie dormant, growing ever more dilapidated. With the tallest elevator standing at some 150 feet, these derelict structures form a kind of complementary skyline to that of downtown Minneapolis.  To the west, the glimmering skyscrapers; to the east, the industrial elevators. Campus, then, finds itself situated between two different worlds – two different phases in the history of the Mill City, confronted from each side by the skyline of the other.

Soon, however, this industrial skyline will likely become a little thinner. Next week, the University Board of Regents is expected to vote in favor of plans to demolish the oldest of the elevators in order to make room for a new athletic facility. It’s not unlikely that similar fates will befall the neighboring elevators and silos. Like many architectural remnants, these behemoths of concrete and steel lie in wait, either to be torn down and (perhaps) replaced or to be renovated and repurposed as condominiums. But for now these sculptures remain intact, and that’s as good a reason as any to spend more time looking up and looking out as we make our way to our next class.

-Alex Jensen