Tempe owes its existence largely to the people who built and ran the Hayden Flour Mill. So imagine if they could see what’s happened to the Valley landmark. Outside, the building is scarred by a 2002 fire set by transients. Inside, asbestos, fire debris and years of pigeon droppings cover the floors. The mill has clearly reached the low point in its storied history.
But in January, a $2.5 million project unfolds, promising better days.
Tempe will remove the asbestos and debris. Then, a massive archaeological exploration into pioneer and Hohokam Indian settlements begins. The work should clear the way for the city to sell, transforming the dreary property into a link between its downtown and growing Town Lake developments.
The anticipated revival is generating excitement among business owners, history buffs and city officials who have struggled for years to breathe new life into the historic site.
"It’s a real treasure," said Vic Linoff, owner of Those Were the Days antique shop on Mill Avenue. "Appropriately and sensitively restored, people will go ‘Wow. I’m so glad somebody took care of that properly.’ "
The cleanup will take weeks, Then archaeologists will explore the site for historic remains — for six months, they hope, said Tempe historic preservation officer Joe Nucci.
It probably won’t yield priceless objects, but should reveal fragments that offer clues into everyday life, said Amy Douglass, administrator of the Tempe Historical Museum. Things such as food scraps, kitchen utensils and other discarded items can identify the ethnicities and economic backgrounds of those who used the site.
Exploration should also uncover artifacts the Hohokams left behind during their 1,200 years of using Hayden Butte for religious ceremonies.
"This is ‘ground zero’ for Tempe’s history," Nucci said.
Meanwhile, the city is reviewing several proposals from developers to restore the mill and add other projects to the site. A likely requirement is that the developer can’t significantly change the historic mill’s look. That means no red brick or stucco to dress it up — just industrial, concrete walls. But that’s important to help tell the story of the mill, Nucci said.
"There was no consideration of aesthetics," Nucci said. "It was just a machine to produce flour."
That sturdiness offers a benefit: The mill is strong enough for any modern use. There’s probably enough steel and concrete in it for a 10-story building, Linoff said.
He doesn’t think the old mill will fit the classic definition of beautiful. But — judging from what’s happened to similar buildings in other downtowns — it should attract upscale restaurants and businesses.
The inside will be full of light, Linoff said. And the outside would look better with something as simple as bright white paint and awnings over the large windows.
"It wouldn’t take a lot for that building to just absolutely glisten in the sun," Linoff said.