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.

Agencies such as Denver's Urban Peak try to cast nets wide enough to keep most homeless teens from bedding down under a bridge, but there are always kids with drug habits, arrest records or independent streaks who prefer to make their own way. These teens chose the old mill.

By most accounts, the Silos was not a place where gangs gathered--unless you count some skinheads. It wasn't a crack house or a methamphetamine lab, either. Sure, there were drugs--plenty of them--along with fighting, vandalism and theft. Even among the kids who stayed there, few are sorry to see it go.

Still, during the winter, the old mill became not only a refuge of last resort, but for some almost a clubhouse.

It was roomy, dry, and far from police, parents and anyone else who might come looking. There were empty storage rooms and concrete floors where teens could build bonfires and hunker down, as well as huge blank walls for taggers and graffiti artists. If they wanted to, street kids could hide there for days. Or months.

She stayed at the Silos her first week on the Denver streets. She was thirteen. A friend took her to the old mill.

It was scary, in the middle of nowhere and really dark. When she arrived, a cluster of ten kids and five adults stood around a bonfire, watching her.

She thought they were going to kick her out, but they didn't. For six months straight, and then off and on for two years, she stayed at the Silos.

This was before she got her GED, signed up for the Job Corps and dropped her street name.

Gina is eighteen now and telling this story over the phone. Her voice is raspy, like she has a cold or smokes too much.

Sometimes she went to the Silos alone, sometimes with friends. Everyone watched over everyone else. Once, when her grandparents came around, the other kids wouldn't let them in. But this was still just a step off the streets, and you had to watch your stuff. She used her backpack as a pillow.

Most kids arrived after 3 a.m., when Muddy's, a former coffeehouse, closed. If they had a joint or a bottle of vodka, they passed it around until everyone got tired.

There were no lights, water or bathroom. If you had to go, you went where you could. Gina walked outside.

She often slept on the fifth floor. It had an elevator door she could drag over the stairwell entrance and tie down with rope to keep others out.

On a wall above the stairs between the third and fourth floors, someone had spray-painted the words, "Home Sweet Home."

Denver police officer Paul Goff: "We used to call it Frankenstein's Loft. Or the Devil's Tower. It was straight out of a Hollywood movie. I always expected to find a body in there. I never went in there alone. When I did go in, I held my breath."

Denver police officer Ann Hughes: "There were rats bigger than you can believe. You could die in there and not be found for a long time."

Chief Deputy District Attorney Diane Balkin: "I can't imagine anyone living there, then or now. There was nothing about it that felt alive."

Denver Deputy Coroner Michelle Weiss-Samaras: "I wish they would just tear it down."

Urban Peak outreach coordinator Kevin Dougherty: "I'm glad it's gone. It's really a sad statement to see kids find attachment with a windowless, hollow building. I'm not sure what it says, but it says something."

The basement walls had satanic markings, the boy remembers. Pentagrams and other symbols written in what looked like dried blood.

"After it rained, you could find bones in the mud big enough to be human," David says. "Police dogs wouldn't go inside, either. They could sense something. What, I don't know. But that's what I heard."

Stories abound: A baby sacrificed by devil worshipers. A maniac living on the third floor and dismembering people. A body beneath the debris in the elevator shaft. A body decaying in the old grain silos. A body under the muck in the basement.

"It was a scary place on its own," he says. "But with the stories, it was worse. A lot of it was fiction, but there were just enough facts to make you afraid."

David is nineteen, a big, likable kid who shrugs a lot. He's not part of the hardcore street crowd, social workers say, but he knew the Silos.

There were a few ways to get inside, he says, drawing a diagram on a piece of notebook paper. The doors and windows were barricaded, but that made it like a game.

Some kids crawled through the small tunnel leading into the basement, but because of the stories, most took another route. David climbed up the rusty window grates.

It was gloomy inside, even in daylight, and littered with garbage. When he entered, David always made a lot of noise so the people hiding in the shadows could hear him coming. If he ran into someone he didn't know, he remembers, "you went one way and they went the other."

Most kids went with friends. Some carried weapons. David preferred a length of rebar with a concrete chunk on one end. "You had to watch what you were doing," he says, his large, pudgy hands fidgeting. "It was pretty far away from everything, so if you screamed for help, no one would hear you."

The floors were riddled with holes where the old mill pipes had been. Several were big enough to fall through; David could look down one and see all the way to the ground.

The concrete steps winding to the top floors were cracked and the handrails shaky. One wrong step could send you tumbling. And the elevator shaft was an open pit, a straight drop seven floors down.

"I never spent the night there," he says. "I was never that desperate. You only went there when you had to."

David went there ten times.
His last visit was Halloween night. He and several friends climbed onto the roof and drew a pentagram in the gravel.

At least two people have died in the Silos.
The first was 25-year-old Michael Donnelly, who fell down the elevator shaft on October 13, 1991. Donnelly had a job at a grocery store and wasn't homeless. But after drinking in a bar that night, he visited the Silos. Denver police detectives never determined why he went there or what happened, but they found no foul play. Donnelly's death was listed as accidental.

The second was a white man in his mid-twenties, who was found beaten and stabbed to death in the building in May 1995. Police and coroner's investigators spent at least a year circulating his picture, posting his description, trying to find out who he was.

They never did.

His street name is Casanova. He's twenty years old and says he's been on his own for about ten: "Bad family life. Abuse and stuff." For him, street life was a choice.

He and his friends visited the Silos to party, smash bottles against the wall, let loose. They'd yell, get high, play truth or dare, jump over the holes on the silo roof.

"It was basically like a big clubhouse," he says, rubbing a tattoo of his ex-fiancee's name, Leonda, on the fingers of his left hand. "We could tag. We could be destructive. We could be violent. We could go there and totally let go."

A few times in the late Eighties, winos tried to take over the Silos, but the teens fought back. Once, some kids ganged up on a bum and beat him to a bloody pulp.

"We left him there with his left arm broken," Casanova says. "We were angry. Angry at everyone."

Looking back, he says, it probably wasn't smart to get so wild. If you fell into one of those holes, you could break a leg or practically kill yourself. But that only happened once that he knows of, to a friend of his.

One night he and that friend dropped acid and climbed to the top floor to trip on the graffiti art that covered everything in the Silos. His friend somehow leaned too close to the edge of the abandoned elevator shaft, lost his balance and tumbled seven floors down. He landed on a tangled pile of two-by-fours, scrap metal and trash heaped at the bottom.

"I remember he just stood up and said, 'I need an ambulance,' and then passed out," Casanova remembers. "In the light--all we had was cigarette lighters--we could see that his head was split open. After that, they took him to the hospital and he went into a coma. His parents took him home. We never saw him again."

Dana Crawford knows the stories. She's heard about the kids, the supposed sacrifices and the dead bodies. But when she looks up at the abandoned flour mill, she sees something else. "It's the epitome of a landmark," she says. "The positioning. The design. The views...It's a stunning building."

Crawford has made a reputation seeing possibility where others see ruin. Larimer Square. The Acme Upholstery and Edbrooke buildings. The Oxford Hotel. While developers in other cities struggle to revitalize their downtowns, she and her real estate and development company, Urban Neighborhoods, Inc., count their successes. And she'd like to add the Flour Mill Lofts to the list. "I've had my eye on that building for twenty years," she says.

Crawford secured loans, including $1 million from the city (which is developing a major park just outside), hired the world's eighteenth-largest construction company and broke ground last October. If all goes well, she'll finish the mill rehab in June and begin on an adjacent condo complex this fall.

Lofts range from $300,000 to $700,000 and come with exposed concrete ceilings, industrial-sized windows that filter train and traffic noise, and great views. Jacuzzis, skylights and elevator surveillance cameras are extra.

In addition to a sunken courtyard, the Flour Mill Lofts will have another unusual amenity: Realizing the role teens played in the history of the building, Crawford hired a photographer to document their graffiti art and plans to leave examples of their work in a fire-escape stairwell. "If some of them came here and learned how to do art, that's a good thing," she says.

Still, Crawford is a little sensitive about the stories surrounding the Silos. When a patrolman visited the construction site recently and joked about a sacrificed baby, Crawford frowned. "You're going to kill this project like that," she said.

For Crawford, the choice was simple: Renovate the building or lose it. Had the old flour mill remained abandoned, it would have been demolished--and the street kids forced to move, anyway. As lofts, it has a future. "For these historic buildings to survive," she says, "they must have new economic lives."

In the past month, Crawford has telephoned prospective clients, posted an open-house sign off 20th Street and given tours. More than thirty people have visited; nine units are pre-sold. Crawford is saving a fourth-floor loft for herself.

"I do a lot of entertaining," she says. "So when I look around here, I see a lot of people. I feel compelled to live here. I laugh and say it's my Kansas roots, but I'm completely taken by this building."

It's dusk now. Cold. Traffic rumbles along 20th Street. Inside the old mill, the sandblasters are silent and the construction gear is locked away. The building cuts a gray rectangle into the purple sky.

In a few months, lights will flicker alive inside rooms where bonfires once burned. Dana Crawford and others will host dinner parties and toast the success of another landmark saved.

Somewhere outside, street kids will be bedding down for the night. Some will stay at the shelters. Others will pool panhandled money for a room on East Colfax. Many will unroll sleeping bags in dark corners that police haven't found yet. They will find a place. They always do.

A few might even wander by the Flour Mill Lofts. "For the memories," as Casanova says. Others, like David, may stop outside and look up at the new tenants. He'd like to ring a doorbell and ask for a tour. He'd like to do that once, just to see. He'd like to walk on the polished wood floors and gaze out the big clean windows at the shimmering Denver night. "Hey," he'd say. "I was here."

Contact Harrison Fletcher at his online address, [email protected], or by phone at 303-293-3553.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Harrison Fletcher