Mill City Museum Restores History from Ashes
It is a trend that is in full swing in architecture and construction today. Modernize historic old buildings but preserve the past. This was the challenge for Minneapolis when trying to honor a staple of the city in restoring the Washburn Mill site. The goal was to develop a modern museum that had been a part of Minnesota’s history for decades.
Located within the ruined walls of the National Historic Landmark Washburn “A” Mill, is now the Mill City Museum that focuses on the stories of flour milling, water power, railroading, food product development, grain trading, and farming, as well as the related people, labor, and immigrant stories. With multiple entries on two levels, the museum functions as a porous link between downtown Minneapolis and the Mississippi River. A destination place and “must-see” addition to the riverfront’s menu of cultural attractions, the museum furthers the city’s vision of reconnecting to its birthplace at Saint Anthony Falls.
The Mill City Museum itself is a thoughtfully-designed modern museum which explores the history and impact of milling on Minneapolis. The museum does a wonderful job of incorporating the old mill into its design and includes, besides the braced ruins, an educational elevator ride that recreates the experience of working in the mill. The original “A” Mill, built in 1874, was leveled by a flour dust explosion that claimed 18 lives. That explosion and the resulting fire destroyed much of the riverfront business area, cutting Minneapolis’ milling capacity in half. The Gold Medal Flour sign still shines at night atop the adjoining grain elevator. Across the river, the former competitor Pillsbury “A” Mill is topped with a sign reading “Pillsbury’s Best Flour.” During its heyday, it was said that the mill ground enough flour to make 12 million loaves of bread a day. Its years as a large abandoned building in industrial Minneapolis turned the Gold Medal Flour building (the final incarnation of the flour mill) into one of the city’s most prominent graffiti-writing locations, with people doing elaborate works and paintings spanning nine floors. Although half the building is now a condominium and the other half is the Mill City Museum, presumably somewhere under the new sheet rock, a generation of Minneapolis graffiti artists’ work still remains.
The owners, Minnesota Historical Society, assigned transforming the mill into a respected museum to noted local Minneapolis architects Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR). The lead was a founding principal of MSR with 42 years’ experience, Tom Meyer. Meyer is well-known regionally and nationally for his work with historic preservation and the Mill City Museum complex (recognized with an AIA Honor Award for Architecture, National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award, and The Waterfront Center’s Excellence on the Waterfront Top Honors).
Mill City Museum has an award-winning architectural design that combines relics of the mill’s past with modern steel, brick, and wood to create a contemporary, industrial space that beautifully preserves the building’s historic integrity. Among the new architectural features is an eight-story glass façade overlooking the Mississippi River. True-to-scale graphics of the milling machines are featured in silk-screened paint (baked into the glass) on the glass façade to give visitors an idea of how massive the milling operation was. The façade forms a reflective backdrop for the courtyard a 100 x 100 foot outdoor area with weathered masonry walls that retrace the 1991 fire while it was mostly abandoned. Ruins of the historic mill are showcased in the courtyard through significant excavation efforts.
One of the most stunning aspects of the building is are the glassy transition areas installed by Harmon, Inc., engineered and supplied by nationally-recognized glass experts from W&W Glass. This adaptive reuse project, spanning 125,000 square-feet, is highlighted by Pilkington Planar™ system vertical wall projections. W&W Glass’ team utilized large panels of clear low-e insulating glass units for the face glass with custom ceramic frit patterns on a #2 surface. The panels were secured with standard Pilkington 905 series fittings. To gain more natural light (something the original mill workers would have loved to have) the install and design team engineered a skylight return at the top of the main feature wall using clear low-e insulating laminated glass units secured with 905 fittings onto a steel back-up structure.
The Mill City Museum is truly one of the most striking and unique historic preservation projects in the city, taking an extremely old, battered structure that had been partially ruined due to several disasters and transforming it into a contemporary building paying homage to the past while encased in modern flair.
W&W Glass LLC is a family owned business with a 70-year history in the metal and glass industry, one of the largest metal and glass companies in the New York metropolitan area and the largest supplier of structural glass systems in the country. We have over two decades of experience in the design and installation of various building enclosure systems, including stick-built curtain walls, pre-glazed unitized curtain walls, Pilkington Planar™ structural glass facades, and custom metal and glass enclosure systems. We install all of our work with our own dedicated union labor force. W&W is consistently the largest employer of glaziers in the NY metropolitan area.
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