Monday, March 2, 2009

Could the Longmont Flour Mill Have Been Saved in 1996?

In the mid-1990's, I used to work a few days a week in downtown Denver, and I rode the RTD bus to get there. As the Longmont Express (LX) bus approached downtown in those dawn hours, it always went past a seemingly-dilapidated multi-story brick building along the South Platte River that had its windows knocked out and was plastered in graffiti on every floor. As these were the early days of Coors Field mania and the accompanying wild success of the Lodo area, I always thought the bulldozers would be by "real soon now" to level that desolate eyesore and make some progress in the area, which I came to learn was an old grain mill.

Never would I have believed that such a run-down structure could ever be renovated, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Before my eyes on a weekly basis, I watched the building get stripped down to its frame and then get rebuilt again. Credit Boulder architect Joe DeSousa, and others, for preserving the the old grain mill and converting it to an apartment building, called the Flour Mill Lofts (the web site is a bit overbearing but it does show the beauty of the renovation). I believe the original building is the one on the left, but let me know if this is wrong.

It was at about the same time, in the mid-90's that the Longmont architectural firm Moore & Bishton put together a proposal to house the new location of the city museum at the five-story Golden West Milling Company building. Part of the rationale was that an historic Longmont building would give the museum prominence, and that this area was located right along a major entrance to downtown. The mill owners at the time (and perhaps still?), Wally and Doug Grant, were part of the family that had owned the mill since the 1920's and were fully supportive of a restoration. City Councilman at that time John Caldwell, who managed the mill from 1976 to 1979, confirmed that the mill building structure was sound and ripe for re-development opportunities.

The master-planned city Quail Road campus (for which the report card is still out) eventually got the new museum, as we know. And as Chicago preservationists will tell you (they lost a lot of historic buildings to the wrecking ball in the 1950s), down economic times are good for keeping old buildings intact because there is no money to build new ones. On the other hand, boom times like the 1950's and mid-1990's were not kind to preservation efforts because there was plenty of money for starting over and building anew, disregarding historical structures in the process. Did our city management and planners go down this path, as well? The Flour Mill Lofts in Denver, mentioned above, luckily was an exception.

Throughout the years, I've heard many voice the same opinion on the Longmont Flour Mill that I was making on that bus ride to Denver: it's ugly, it's covered with graffiti, it's a den for vagrants, it's littered with trash, and it needs to come down. But what if an investment had been made in its preservation 15 years ago, and it too could have been transformed like the grain mill in Denver? It's easy to armchair speculate now, but a near-downtown museum could have been part of a much-needed portfolio of attractions that are often cited as reasons for people to come downtown. By now, other businesses, restaurants, and housing could have been built around such a museum, and with enough planning, the area could have transitioned into the FasTraks station concept that has been talked about over the past few years.

Ah, enough dreaming.


Jeremy Berggren said...

These are interesting conversations. Both on your blog and in the Times Call comments.

Perhaps this event at the Floor Mill leads to these conversations and they spur new action.

A City that moves the owners of the Twin Peaks Mall and the Sugar Mill to do something with them or sell the properties to someone who will.

We could use the construction work.

Yokota Fritz said...

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Ah well.

The Sugar Mill has bigger problems: If I recall correctly, there's a ton of asbestos remediation required by whoever takes on the task of tearing down that structure. I seem to remember conversation among city officials that they hoped RTD would put a FasTrack stop at the Sugar Mill to take that problem off of their hands and into the RTD's deeper pockets :-)

In a Van Down By the St. Vrain River said...

Yes indeed, the Sugar Factory has some serious environmental cleanup problems, including asbestos and oil seepage. The city applied a few years ago for some funds to do a cleanup, but the application was not approved. Look for an exciting upcoming series on the Longmont Sugar Factory coming soon in this blog.