On the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, workers are preparing to do maintenance work on the Washburn Mill. Almost 2 million people pass through the complex, as well as several other flour mills and grain elevators in the area, so the Washburn Mill is in a constant state of repair.
But these workmen are not trying to keep it in working order. They are stabilizing the ruins that remain.
“We have interactive teaching points, so when people go up in the cab, they can stop at various places and there are small dioramas set in the walls and films,” said Laura Salveson, the museum’s executive director. “Preservation of the structure will always be an ongoing activity.”Once the heart of American flour production, the Washburn Mill was the largest of its kind ever built. After being abandoned in 1965, the building was almost destroyed by a fire in 1991. That spurred the local historical society to start campaigning to preserve the ruins for posterity. It now serves as a museum where people can see the different functions each level of the grain elevator and mill once had.
Although the idea of a modern ruin seems like an oxymoron, grassroots preservation societies all over America are trying to conserve great abandoned industrial and modern structures. Having lain empty for years, they are a new all-American kind of historical ruin that is far removed from the ancient Coliseum of Rome or the pyramids of Giza.
Among the latest preservation efforts is the Michigan Central Station, formerly Detroit’s main depot until Amtrak service ended in 1988. Derelict for years, it was saved from demolition in 2009 by the Michigan Central Station Preservation Society, led by John Mohyi, who organized a petition of more than 15,000 signatures and 350 local volunteers. Station owner Manuel Moroun, a local businessman, has invested $10 million thus far in stabilizing the structure, according to Mohyi. Calls to Moroun’s CenTra Inc. were not returned.However, these groups don’t want to restore the monuments. Rather, they treat the buildings as traditional heritage sites, valuable in their current state as a unique symbol of a local history and culture.
“It is one of these things that just can’t be replaced,” said Mohyi of the station. “Even now, you see newlywed couples in the summertime drive up in their limos to take photos in front of it. Just imagine what it’ll be like when it is rehabilitated!”
Driving the trend of preserving ruins is a growing sense of nostalgia for America’s past, said Kenneth Breisch, professor of historic preservation at the University of Southern California. Deciding to preserve something as a ruin is usually inspired by people’s emotional attachment and ideas of heritage and commemoration of where they and their culture sprung from.
At the Washburn Mill, glass viewing platforms and reinforced steel allows visitors to explore it safely. Many are Minnesota residents who want to show their friends from out of town something emblematic of the region’s culture and place within the larger American history.
“You can see the marks of the industrial process and the decay that has happened over the years,” said Bethany Fixsen, who visited from Henderson, Minn. “There is a film that is projected on the wall of the grain tower that really explains what went on there and how it fits into the Twin Cities’ history.”
Professional photographer Arthur Drooker agrees that the decay itself is part of what makes the ruins special. He has traveled the country documenting ruins in places as far flung as the Cook Bank building in Rhyolite, Nev., or the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Pennsylvania. Drooker found examples of preserved industrial buildings that are now thought of as heritage sites.
“Even though Americans like to think of themselves as future oriented, I think there is a kind of yearning for the past. That is part of how fast our development has been,” he explained. “We want something to harken back to that is tangible.”
One of Drooker’s favorite sites is Bannerman’s Castle, a faux-medieval style armory located on Pollepel Island in New York’s Hudson River.
The armory was originally built at the end of the 19th century by army surplus dealer Frank Bannerman. One of the few remaining examples of the medieval style armories that were once scattered throughout the Hudson Valley, the building had fallen into disrepair over the years. It would have continued to fall apart had it not been for the efforts of Bannerman Castle Trust founder Neil Caplan and his wife.
Caplan discovered the armory in 1992 after seeing a drawing of it in a book on the area’s industrial history. Seeing an opportunity to preserve the site as a monument for tourists to visit and learn about the Hudson Valley’s heritage, Caplan set up Friends of Bannerman Castle.
The trust secured a $350,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant that was matched by private donations. The group was able to stabilize the buildings enough to open the island up to the public in 2008, but much of the structure was still too shaky for visitors to enter. Part of the north wall of the main building was knocked over during a storm in 2010.
Despite the setback, the number of tourists wanting to go to the island and see the bizarre structure for themselves has been steadily increasing each year. Last year, almost 6,000 people took a tour.
Now, through visitor fees and donations, the group has raised the $150,000 it needs to start stabilizing the remaining structure so that more people can start coming to the island and exploring the inside of the buildings. This, in turn, will drive more conservation. In preparation for the upcoming season, the trust has begun operating an extra tour to accommodate the growing numbers of tourists.
“You don’t want to lose something like this,” said Caplan. “This country is very interesting in that we like to tear things down rather than preserve them. But this place is one of a kind. It is symbolic of the industry we once had and lost.”