Historic Structures

Gerber Sheet Metal Works Building, Minneapolis Minnesota

Date added: July 25, 2010 Categories: Minnesota Industrial

The Gerber Sheet Metal Works Building is historically significant for its association with Minneapolis' "West Side Milling District." Constructed sometime between 1892 and 1904, the shop specialized in the manufacture of spouts and other sheet metal items for flour mills and grain elevators. Reflecting the general decline of the West Side District during the 1930s, the sheet metal works moved to a new location in 1935. After that date, the building experienced several changes in ownership and use.

The West Side Milling District lies on the west bank of the Mississippi River, in close proximity to the Falls of St. Anthony. It is bounded by the river. Fourth Avenue South, South Second Street, and Eighth Avenue South. In 1856, this parcel of land was acquired by the Minneapolis Mill Company, which planned to develop the waterpower potential. In 1856-1858, the Minneapolis Mill Company cooperated with the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company, which owned the land on the opposite bank of the river, to construct a dam above the falls.

Attracted by the available waterpower, a wide variety of manufacturies developed in the West Side District during the 1860s. By 1871, the area contained 25 waterpowered establishments. These consisted of ten flour mills, seven sawmills, two woolen mills, a cotton mill, a paper mill, an iron works, a sash mill, a planing mill, and a railroad machine shop. The district also contained several steam-powered plants, including metal shops, woodworking establishments, and a small custom gristmill.

Despite the industrial diversity of the 1860s, flour milling became the West Side's dominant industry in the 1870s. This specialization was partially the result of technological change. After extensive experimentation, by the end of the 1860s, Minneapolis millers had developed a new method of grinding spring wheat which produced a much higher quality flour. Demand for the new flour rose immediately, and almost overnight new mills sprouted in the West Side District. Between 1870 and 1880, seventeen new flouring plants were established within the district, all but one operating on waterpower.

Concurrent with this increase in flour production was a decrease in other types of industrial activity. This decline resulted partly from general economic conditions and partly from the conscious policy of the Minneapolis Mill Company. Convinced that sawmilling operations wasted waterpower, the Minneapolis Mill Company, between 1876 and 1880, purchased most of the sawmills on the West Side and, within a decade, phased them out of production. Other businesses left the district of their own accord, seeking new places within Minneapolis to expand. Still other firms simply succumbed to the competitive pressures of an increasingly national market. By the end of the 1870s, the Minneapolis flour interests had established their dominance over the district.

By 1880, Minneapolis, and the West Side, had become the nation's leading flouring center, a distinction it maintained over the next five decades. By 1930, however, significant changes in wheat quality, freight rate structure, and tariff policy had undermined its supremacy. To insure their continued survival, the great West Side flouring corporations shifted the focus of their operations away from Minneapolis and began to build extensive milling complexes in Chicago, Kansas City, and Buffalo. After Minneapolis ceded first place in flour production to Buffalo in 1930, many of the West Side's large milling complexes were abandoned or demolished.

In its heyday, the West Side Milling District contained many businesses not directly associated with flour production, but which nevertheless catered to the dominant industry. The Gerber Sheet Metal Works is a case in point. James J. Gerber established the company in 1888 or 1889. It initially occupied a frame building in the heart of the West Side District, on the comer of Sixth Avenue South (now Portland Avenue) and South Second Street. A native of Wisconsin, Gerber learned the sheet metal trade in Milwaukee. In 1880, he moved to Minneapolis, working as a tinsmith until establishing his own business. The J. J. Gerber Sheet Metal Works apparently flourished, and Gerber became a respected businessman, earning listings in several Minnesota biographies. Gerber died in 1930, Just as hard times settled over the district. Reflecting the gradual abandonment of the West Side, the company relocated its shop to another section of the city in 1935.

The Gerber Sheet Metal Works was an integral part of the West Side Milling District, producing sheet metal items for the area's flour mills and grain elevators. In 1896, The Weekly Northwestern Miller noted that "J.J. Gerber . . . makes all the Beall [wheat] heaters sold by the Beall Improvements Co. The rest of his business consists of work for the mills." One of Gerber's principal items was a flexible distributing spout, which he patented in 1900. With the declaration that "my specialties are mill and elevator spouting of all descriptions."

'Gerber improved the spout several times, receiving additional patents in 1902 and 1906. In essence, the spout consisted of a series of telescoping sections connected by means of bolts and chains. By removing or adding sections and adjusting the chain connections, the spout could easily be lengthened or shortened. The spout was apparently a popular item, and the Northwestern Miller published a notice of its patent and operation in 1906.

The frame building in which Gerber first established his shop was demolished sometime between 1892 and 1904. Between these dates, the brick structure now known as the Gerber Sheet Metal Works Building was erected on the lot. The structure may have been built by John B. Gilfillan, who purchased the lot in 1903. Gerber appears to have been the new building's primary tenant, and he purchased the property from Gilfillan in 1906.

When first constructed, the Gerber Sheet Metal Works Building appears to have been a simple, two-story, rectangular, brick structure with a shallow-pitched shed roof. The building measured approximately 100 feet by 40 feet. It is not known how Gerber equipped his shop or whether he made any significant alterations to the structure. After the firm relocated in 1935, the building went through several changes in ownership. Each new occupant appears to have extensively altered the building's interior, installing new partitions, utilities and equipment. The locations of exterior doors and windows also appear to have changed over time. Among the most notable alterations, fish-smoking ovens were installed in 1945, a concrete block storage room was added in 1967 and the building was stuccoed in 1968.

In 1971, the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of the Minnesota Historical Society determined that the Gerber Sheet Metal Works Building was historically significant as a contributing property in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District. In 1984, the Hayber Development Group of Minneapolis proposed to redevelop several old mills in the district for hotel, office and commercial use. As part of the so-called "Block 10 Project," the developer planned to demolish the Gerber Sheet Metal Works Building. The Gerber Sheet Metal Works Building was demolished in I985.