Building for the Future

Even after five months, he can feel the chill.
"There's definitely something about the place," Doug Gradisar says, looking up the side of an abandoned flour mill northwest of Coors Field. "It gives you the creeps."

Gradisar is an outreach worker for homeless teens. The last time he was here, getting a tour from three street kids, he had to crawl under a chain-link fence, past a plywood barricade, through an old coal chute and into a dank, muddy basement of broken beer bottles, spray cans and urine. As he climbed the cracked concrete steps to the seventh floor, wind blowing through broken windows, graffiti everywhere, he sensed something.

"Now, I'm not superstitious," he says, jamming his hands in his coat pockets this blustery afternoon, "but it was weird. Like you could feel the lost souls."

Developer Dana Crawford stands on the third floor of the same mill amid sandblasting equipment, scaffolding and men in hardhats. She bought the building last October, got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is halfway through a $7 million project to remake it into seventeen lofts and condominiums. Come summer, one of Denver's most notorious buildings will have a new life. If Crawford hadn't decided to save it, the structure might have been gone by now, replaced by another ballpark parking lot.

Crawford walks through the empty space and describes how the condos will look: open, airy, with hardwood floors, brushed-aluminum fixtures and postcard views of the Rocky Mountains, Coors Field and the Denver skyline.

"Whenever I'm in here," she says, leaning on a windowsill, "I feel like I'm in the middle of an Edward Hopper painting."

Before Larimer Square and Coors Field, the lofts and the brewpubs, lower downtown Denver was an industrial engine. Around the turn of the century, when the mining boom went bust, flour production greased the machine.

Up and down Cherry Creek and the Platte River, mills worked 24 hours a day, belching thick black clouds from coal furnaces, employing hundreds of men and women, making Denver the biggest flour center west of the Mississippi.

In the middle of it all stood millionaire tycoon J.K. Mullin. For decades his Colorado Milling and Elevator Co. held a virtual monopoly on the flour industry. The company was the biggest in the state and shipped flour as far away as California, the Pacific Northwest, Georgia and Massachusetts.

In 1906 a group of his competitors decided to give Mullin a run for his money. They banded together as the Longmont Farmers Milling and Elevator Co. and built what was then a state-of-the-art mill complex off 20th Street in the Platte Valley. The Pride of the Rockies, as it was called, was "a big rock in his garden," says Bill Convery, author of a Mullin biography.

The plant, which included three silos, was one of the first in town wired with electricity. Using the gravity-based "Hungarian process," which Mullin had invented, it helped perfect high-altitude milling. Grain just off the train was hauled by elevator to the top floor and dumped into a series of conveyors, gurneys and rollers, then sifted, sorted, refined and packaged. At the height of production, the Longmont mill processed 250,000 bushels of grain each year.

"That was an enormous amount," says Convery. "This was a major mill. A major competitor."

The main building was framed with steel and fortified with extra-thick concrete walls. Each floor was equipped with water buckets: Since flour mills were filled with dry, microscopic dust particles, a tossed cigarette could--and did--spark raging fires. The plant burned twice, first in 1920 and then in 1932. The last blaze was so intense that Denver passed an ordinance forbidding the salvage or resale of the mill's charred equipment.

Eventually the mill was refurbished and bought by Mullin, then sold to one of the Eastern conglomerates gobbling up family flour mills all over the country. As the industry consolidated, mills along the Platte River disappeared. By 1975, only the shell of the Pride of the Rockies remained, in a field of weeds, mud and railroad tracks. For a while it served as a warehouse for milling machines and grocery supplies, then as a construction office, and even, for a short time, as a sculpture.

In 1986 a Boulder musician named Otis Taylor hired a team of rock climbers to weave giant bolts of yellow plastic through the windows and along the sides of the structure, then proclaimed the piece "environmental art."

When Taylor finished, he left the plastic drapery flapping like the sails of a ghost ship, the curtains of a haunted house. The creepy old building, which appeared more weather-beaten each day, looked even creepier.

And then the street kids came.

On any given night, local social workers say, several hundred homeless teenagers roam Denver streets. Most are white--chronic runaways, high-school dropouts from the metropolitan area. They've left behind physical, sexual and emotional abuse, alcoholic and drug-addicted parents, broken families and fractured homes. Where they're headed, most don't have a clue. But for a time, many landed at the abandoned flour mill, a haven that the homeless teens called the Silos.

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