A local triumph, a national model

Almost everyone agrees the opening of the Mill City Museum is a great thing for Minneapolis, but I believe it is even more than that. I am convinced the new museum is a great thing for the cause of historic preservation nationwide – because it is such a vivid, compelling illustration of what preservation is all about.

At its most elemental level, preservation means treating historic places with the respect they deserve. We all know this city has not always had an exemplary record in this regard. In fact, humorist Ogden Nash could have been thinking specifically of Minneapolis when he wrote, “Progress may have been a good thing at one time, but it went on a little too long.”

Misguided notions of what constitutes “progress” robbed us of many historic buildings; and time, weather and neglect destroyed many others over the years. Somehow, the massive Washburn A Mill managed to survive. When a disastrous fire left the mill in ruins, most people probably (and understandably) thought it was lost forever – but now, more than a decade after the flames gutted it, it has been given a strong new role in community life.

The new museum’s creation in the old mill’s shell offers testimony to the imagination and tenacity of the Minnesota Historical Society and the many individuals who made it happen, of course, but it testifies to something else as well: Old buildings – even those that appear too far gone to be worth saving – can have a lot of life left in them. Cities all over the nation need to learn that lesson, and Minneapolis offers them a good example to emulate.

This city is also demonstrating that historic preservation is more than bricks and mortar; it’s also about rediscovery.

Minneapolis rose to prominence in the latter half of the 19th century largely because of its location beside St. Anthony Falls, the only natural waterfall on the entire course of the Mississippi. When I left Minnesota 30 years ago, it was almost impossible to access the riverfront or catch more than a glimpse of the falls, but now Minneapolis is rediscovering the waterway that was the most important factor in its early economic prosperity.

Sparked by the vision of individuals such as the late Jim Rice, a collaboration between government agencies and the private sector is using preservation as the foundation for turning the long-overlooked riverfront into an impressive urban amenity.

The new Mill Ruins Park provides a close-up look at the remains of the mills that once lined the river, plus the canals and tailraces that made the whole complex work. Winding through the park is a two-mile heritage trail that carries pedestrians and bikers across the Mississippi on the restored Stone Arch Bridge and offers dramatic views of the falls. With the Mill City Museum as their centerpiece, these attractions literally open a doorway to the past. They prove historic preservation can help turn a former industrial area into a place to be explored and enjoyed, not ignored and avoided – and that is another lesson plenty of other cities need to learn.

Finally, what is happening here shows preservation is a means of celebrating the history that makes each community unique.

Minneapolis has plenty of marvelous assets, but in some ways it is not markedly different from many other U.S. cities. There is, however, one thing that sets Minneapolis – like every other community – apart from anywhere else: its history. One of the best things about the new museum is that it provides a venue in which that history can be presented and interpreted more thoroughly, thoughtfully and engagingly than has ever been possible before.

We can learn about the past from books, of course, but reading about it cannot compare with the experience of actually walking through it. History tells us, “This is what happened.” Historic preservation adds a note of electrifying immediacy: “It happened right here.” At the Mill City Museum, with the river rushing past and the “Gold Medal Flour” sign looming over the one-time home of Betty Crocker, visitors can experience, learn from and be inspired by a past that is alive all around them.

I have always been proud to claim Minnesota as my home. Now, as a card-carrying preservationist as well as a native Minnesotan, I find what is happening here in Minneapolis gives me new reasons to be proud of my state – and of the innovative ways its citizens are honoring their rich heritage and sharing it with the world.

Congratulations all around.

Richard Moe is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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