One of the most famous buildings on the Stillwater skyline is the Commander Elevator. It rises majestically from the cityscape as one of the tallest buildings in downtown. Even with all the photographs taken of it and the inspiration it gives artists, this building, like many others in downtown, was nearly torn down.

The elevator was originally built in 1898 by the Woodward Elevator Company, the elevator and scale house was first at the corner of Main and Nelson Street, but was moved to its present site in 1904. A flourmill was built on the old site. An overhead spout connected the two and both were operated by the Minnesota Four Mill Company until 1908.

The mill passed into the hands of Fred Luchsinger and then became the property of the Big Diamond Milling Company. Later the Dibble Grain and Elevator Company, and then the Empire Milling Company owned the building. The Commander Company purchased the elevator in 1919, which operated it until 1961 when G.T.A. bought out all Commander elevators.

The name “Commander” stuck with the elevator and is still known as that today. Harvest States Co-op ran the elevator until March 1, 1986 when the last load of feed was ground in the mill, and the Co-op did not renew its lease.

A retail feed store continued to operate out of the retail space, but the elevator was now empty, gathering dust and pigeons with no other outlook than to someday be torn down. However, architect Michael McGuire had some dreams and plans for the unused structure. He wanted at first to remodel the building into a combination retail store, apartment and office building. Plans were presented to the Stillwater Planning Commission in April 1988 and although there were concerns about flooding, parking and handicap access, the Commission passed the plans on to the City Council. McGuire stated in the Stillwater Gazette of April 28, 1988 “the elevator is an important landmark in downtown Stillwater, and some way should be found to preserve it.”

In the summer of 1993, a way to preserve the integrity of the elevator came about that maybe even McGuire never could imagine. After more discussion about the structure, Deb Asch of P.J. Outterfitters thought that a climbing wall constructed within the elevator would be practical and useful for the outdoorsmen that need a place to practice rock climbing. The Stillwater City Council approved the plans and construction was underway.

A short time later the climbing walls were done and the building has kept its historical integrity on the exterior while being about to adapt to a new use and function on the interior. The Commander Elevator has become one of the symbols of the reuse of historical buildings that in the past would have been torn down and made into another parking lot.

Writer Meg Heaton wrote an article about the elevator. In it, she wrote of the elevator as “one end of a set of bookends that holds downtown together. At the north end are the Old State prison and the Staples lumber mill. At the south end is the Commander, and with the River on the east and the North and South Hills on the west, we should hold in there pretty well for a long time to come.”

Brent Peterson is the Executive Director of the Washington County Historical Society.

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