THE LEAFLESS TREES and low winter sky lend this section of St. Louis Park a depressing air. Even the newer condos look worn out and the older three-story walk-ups that line the railroad tracks near Excelsior Boulevard are positively shabby. All around are flat warehouses, gas stations, and clean-cut chain stores; the usual testaments to commuter utility and suburban sterility.
Tucked behind a soot-colored warehouse, surrounded by the red chip gravel of the SOO line, stands a simple, concrete form--a solitary cylinder stretching 120 feet into the air. It's not much to look at. White paint flecks cover the ground around it. A faded blue advertisement for Nordic Ware, "America's finest heavy aluminum ware," adorns one side. It's flanked by an illegal dump, a death trap of rusty cans, old tires, and refrigerators, choked over with brambles and tough saplings.
Homely as it is, this experimental storage bin was the first of its kind in the world, built around 1900. And it's considered by many to be the single most influential structure in contemporary architecture. It's even registered as a National Landmark, which has undoubtedly saved it from the hungry suburban bulldozers. "In view of its ultimate effect on industry nationwide and on modern architecture worldwide," writes architect Reyner Banham in his book The Concrete Atlantis, "it deserves [National Landmark status] more thoroughly than many other artifacts dignified with the same title."
In 1889, it wasn't moving grain that worried the great agricultural magnates, but storing it. At the turn of the century, Minneapolis and Buffalo were the granaries of the world, the loci of a new centralized agrarian society. Small towns collected grain from local farmers and sifted it into rail cars bound for Minneapolis. But before it was refined, ground, bleached, bagged, and shipped to feed the country, it simply sat.
In the quest for the perfect storage system, engineers experimented with a number of materials. Wooden storage bins, the common choice, suffered distinct disadvantages. Specifically, they caught on fire every couple of years and had to be rebuilt. Riveted steel bins failed to protect the grain from heat and cold, and were prohibitively expensive besides. Engineers at the Pillsbury Company came up with a novel approach; they fired ceramic tiles to form a cylinder which was held together with steel bands. But making those proved to be expensive and time consuming.
So in 1899, the Peavey Company turned to concrete. With the help of the architect Charles Haglin, Frank Peavey built the single experimental bin in St. Louis Park next to their SOO line warehouse. It was sarcastically nicknamed "Peavey's Folly." Building with wet concrete was a novelty. Haglin tackled the job with an ingenious device that permanently changed the construction world. It was called a slip form, so named because it slid up the side of the wall as it was built; when one layer of concrete set, the form was jacked up and the next layer poured, allowing a smooth, seamless structure.
Once completed, Peavey filled the bin with grain. And he waited a whole year before announcing he would empty it. A crowd gathered to watch, convinced that either the grain inside would tumble out wet and moldy or, more likely, the structure itself would implode. Not only did Peavey's system hold up under the vacuum created during emptying, but the grain itself emerged fresh and undamaged. From that moment on, concrete became the industry standard. Within the year, Peavey began construction of an enormous grain elevator in Duluth, consisting of 30 reinforced concrete tanks, each more than 33 feet in diameter and 104 feet high. Similar elevators were raised in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Buffalo.
Meanwhile, a young German architect watched these developments in American trade journals. He admired the elements of industrial engineering: the basic shapes--cylinder and square--and the lack of ornamentation. In his mind, they contrasted the faults of his native architecture, cluttered renditions of Gothic and baroque excess. That architect was Walter Gropius, who went on to father the New International Style, found the famed Bauhaus school, and who ultimately put his stamp on virtually every public structure in the Western Hemisphere built after 1950.
In 1913, Gropius published a collection of photographs taken of American grain elevators and factories. Among them were pictures of the Washburn Crosby grain storage complexes in Buffalo and Minneapolis--both modeled after Peavey's Folly. The Minneapolis complex, which still stands across the river from St. Anthony Main, consisted of fifteen 100-foot, reinforced slip-form concrete bins, flanked on one end by a hulking set of cleaning floors.
Gropius recognized the palpable magnificence of the complex. He presented his photographs as evidence of a new industrial style eschewing the "romantic residue of past styles as cowardly and unreal." Singling out America's feats of engineering for special praise, he argued that what started as a utilitarian need had resulted in something much greater. Our grain elevators, he wrote, "almost bear comparison with the work of the ancient Egyptians in their overwhelming monumental power."