By the time I discovered the ruined mill, it had been abandoned for 25 years. A lonely wreck by the Mississippi near downtown Minneapolis, this old flour mill, the Washburn Crosby, was once the largest in the world. But years of neglect, fire, and the endless cycles of rain and ice had reduced the titan to rubble, a rough cascade of limestone and brick. To its south, a set of water-stained grain elevator bins soared 100 feet into the air, concrete, but improbably light and breathless. To the north stood a hulking warehouse with rank upon rank of black, broken windows.
The ruin’s architecture of decay surprised and enchanted me. Window frames hung half in space with neither mortar nor glass. Stairways rose to nowhere. A sapling grew out of a sink. Floors sprouted carpets of patterned moss. Brick lay down with concrete. Everywhere, beauty and putrefaction shared quarters, like sex and excrement, and these incongruities stimulated my imagination like the random images from which a sleeper constructs dreams.
I liked to climb up into the empty buildings and breathe the smell of sour grain, charred wood, and stagnant water. Inside it was cold, even in the wet heat of August. Water dripped and echoed. The building sighed, then paused. One spring day I startled a flock of pigeons sunning themselves on the windowsills of a chilly upper chamber. In their panic, the birds took to the air as a body and crashed through the half-shattered window glass. I’ll never forget the scene: the tick of all those frenzied wings; the alarmed cries of the birds; and the glass shards catching the sun, flashing sparks, ringing like chimes as they fell to the floor.
In recent years, the ruin has been cleaned and stabilized against further decay. Soon it will open to the public as a museum of flour milling, the centerpiece of a bustling, new district of condominiums and attractions. It will be tidy, safe, and intelligently designed: in a word, civilized. City hall calls this work revitalization. But I consider it a loss. True, I would rather see the old mill domesticated; so much of our city has been demolished. But I will miss those untamed ruins. They were wild and alive – an interpenetration of natural and human forces, a symbol of our common destruction, a reminder of our impossibly brief moment in time.