WIUM Tristates Public Radio

From Milling Grain to Feeding And Entertaining Communities: How Elevators Gain New Lives

Aug 3, 2020

Reliable Street, on the northwest edge of Ames, runs parallel to the train tracks for two blocks. From the late 1800s to the mid-20th century, it was the main drag for the township of Ontario and in 1898, the Lockwood Grain and Coal Company began operating a flour mill and grain elevator on the north side of the street.

The city of Ames annexed Ontario in 1962, and today two residential streets end at Reliable Street. The silos haven’t stored grain since the 1970s, and the elevator complex was last used as a car mechanic shop. In 2015, artist Lyndsay Nissen turned her attention to the vacant building.

Nissen and her husband were looking for a large industrial building that could accommodate studio space for several artists while also providing community access for art shows, music, movies or other activities.

“The bank said they wouldn’t fund any of it, so it had to be bought straight out,” Nissen said, standing behind the mill, overlooking the train tracks. “Because you know, ‘What is somebody going to do with this space? We’re not investing in this area.’ And we were like, ‘This is our dream!’”

Grain elevators dot the Midwest landscape, but as the technology for getting crops to market has evolved, agriculture has abandoned many of those old buildings. Some towns no longer need an elevator, while others build new, modern ones without removing the older structures.

Nissen joined a short list of creative entrepreneurs and investors who saw future prospects in the remains of old elevators and took a leap of faith to convert them into places people would want to visit.

Finding a way through challenges

The former Doboy feed mill Nissen is rehabbing now has Black Lives Matter and pandemic-related signs, fresh flowers and artwork out front. Early on, Nissen invited Sharon Stewart to take a look at the building and consider opening a cafe.

“It was a perfect location,” Stewart remembers, “and the dream of owning a café wasn’t to own a café, it was to be a part of making physical space that engaged community and brought people together.”

Stewart’s Lockwood Café opened for business last year and now, once again, this spot is a gathering place for locals, as it hosted farmers’ coffee klatches more than a generation ago.

But nothing about the space was conducive to opening a café and as Stewart got started, she ran into one city hurdle after another.

“This place came with a ton of limitations,” she said. “When we first got involved with the project, we were pretty much told that the idea of doing this was ridiculous.”

Numerous people told her that it would be impossible to open a café at that location.

“We decided that rather than be told what we can and cannot do, we were going to decide what we were gonna do and then ask how, not if.”

The city said a parking lot would be required, but Stewart didn’t want to put in a parking lot so she asked, “How do we open the space without a parking lot? And that was a year-long challenge of working with the city to effectively change the code to allow on-street parking for our zone to count toward the required parking.”

Another requirement for a restaurant was an exhaust hood, which she says was prohibitively expensive in this tall, old, concrete building. But a little more digging revealed that cooking isn’t what triggers the hood requirement, it’s specific appliances that do.

“So we worked with equipment that doesn’t require a hood vent,” she says. “Our menu is limited, but within that, we have to be creative.”

They make coffee, tea and a variety of sweet and savory crepes.

So far, Nissen and Stewart have renovated only a small part of the mill complex, carving out the café and an art gallery from the larger building by sealing them off with modern firewalls from the rest of the space, including the tower. Recently they used an exterior wall to screen a movie for the Des Moines Underground Film Festival, and they continue to chip away at the process of opening other areas.

From an eyesore to nostalgic restaurant

In Hermann, Missouri, Jim and Mary Dierberg have the enormity of such a project in the rearview mirror.

They have bought many buildings in the community over the years and more than a decade ago they decided the old elevator needed attention.

“The wind off of the buildings was getting dangerous,” Jim Dierberg says of the dilapidated site. “You’d have these big sheets of tin blowing through the air…(could) be like a guillotine.”

The Dierbergs hired architect Tim Barker to work on the renovations and he remembers his first visit to the property, which had been vacant for years.

“I did the typical thing an architect does, which is poke around in an old space. And I probably shouldn’t have,” he remembers with a laugh, “and I definitely shouldn’t have done it alone.”

Looking back, he realizes how unsafe it was. Things were crumbling around him.

“There were vermin in the basement,” he says, “I didn’t go down there.”

The Dierbergs had money to invest and historic preservation tax credits, which meant they had to maintain the original structure but were free to try something new.

The Tin Mill Steakhouse serves diners in a setting steeped with some of the building’s recovered materials. Mary Dierberg says those include exposed wood from the million or so board feet of lumber that were stacked to construct the original tower. A grain auger has been repurposed to hold up a shelf for glassware.

“The wood wheels are down in the lower level that’s made out of stone, so we used those for decoration.”

While the Dierbergs honored the elevator’s past with their reuse, some communities have found old elevators to be eyesores or even dangers,occasionally sparking heated debate about what to do with them.

Using their height

In other places, re-development leads to a completely different use.

“I just had a really big passion for climbing and wanted to build a climbing gym,” says Chris Schmick, who knew little about restoration, regulations or reuse in 1995 when he decided to buy the old elevator in Bloomington, Illinois.

“I was 25, so I was pretty naïve, I guess,” he says, “I didn’t really realize what was going to be involved.”

He’d almost given up on Bloomington, in fact, until on his last day of searching for a building he drove by the abandoned grain elevator.

Upper Limits Climbing Gym attracts climbers from a wide area with indoor climbing in 65-foot silos and outdoor climbing on a 110-foot one. Schmick says local residents appreciated that he cleaned up an idled property. In the early days, he’d have folks stop by who remembered when the mill was functional, some who had worked at it. He jokes that his net impact on the town’s population, though, may have been negative as the most avid climbers eventually leave for Colorado or other points west.

All of these businesses have had to modify their operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Lockwood Café and the Reliable Street project, the shutdown came just as things were taking off.

“It was just starting to pick up momentum and basically function exactly the way that I had dreamed it would,” Nissen says. But she’s not letting the inconvenience dampen her spirits. She and Stewart have tried to make the best of the forced closure by working on some of the many remaining projects that are harder to advance while operating the cafe and gallery.

If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it could be that work they put in now allows them to more quickly open other parts of the complex.

Follow Amy on Twitter at: @AgAmyInAmes