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Preservation-ready: The Great Northern grain elevator

An image from Bruce Jackson's show entitled "American Chartres".

Bruce Jackson

A monumental piece of American history has stood empty for over thirty years. In its glory days, it was visited daily by dozens of ships loaded with grain. Commercial vessels halted by this massive structure so its bizarre iron “legs”—much like the unfolding appendages of a monstrous sci-fi insect—could reach into their holds and deliver the grain to the silo for storage of as many as 2.5 million bushels. Aficionados of this building have compared it to an Egyptian pyramid or a French cathedral. Detractors have called it a rusting hulk.

The Great Northern grain elevator is the last of the “brick box” type still standing in North America. Forty-eight huge steel bins are housed behind the monumental brick exterior, held above an open floor by a web of steel I-beams. Three corrugated-iron nine-story-high iron legs are designed to move along tracks. The head house is lit by ranks of industrial windows. Reyner Banham calls Great Northern “a grand old monument to the side of modern industrial architecture” in his Concrete Atlantis, noting that is was built by Max Toltz, “the presiding engineering genius of the golden age of the Great Northern Railway.” In 1901, Engineering News wrote that the Great Northern was “among the most important engineering works of modern times.” Eventually, this type of grain elevator—with its encased steel bins—gave way to the reinforced concrete silos, where the shape of the bins determine the form of the entire structure.

In 2006, Buffalo News editorial page editor Mike Vogel listed the Great Northern among Buffalo’s ten most important historic places. (The list also included Breckenridge Street Meeting Hall, Michigan Street Baptist Church, 1833 Buffalo Lighthouse, the Historical Society’s Pan-Am building, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Wilcox Mansion, the Concrete Central Grain Elevator, Forest Lawn Cemetery, the Central Terminal, and the Fireboat Edward M. Cotter.)

Attempts to raze the structure date from at least 1990, when then-owner Pillsbury requested a demolition, which was opposed and culminated in the Great Northern’s designation as a local landmark. In 1996, subsequent owner Archer Daniels Midland asked to level the complex, but was stymied by an unusual partnership consisting of the Longshoreman’s union, which was losing jobs, and city preservationists, who conditioned that a ten-story monument be constructed as a historic marker (among other stipulations). ADM again asked to demolish the Great Northern in 2003 and was again prevented, though the city’s Preservation Board again offered to sanction the demo if a scale model was made. Also in 2003, the Great Northern was named to the National Register of Historic Places. It is still owned by ADM.

The willingness of the Preservation Board to consider demolition despite the site’s undisputed historic status is an indication of the conflicted attitudes about these structures that prevail among Buffalonians. Letters to the editor in the News routinely either extoll the grain elevators for their historic importance and impressive stature or denounce them as hideous eyesores. These two from May 2003 are typical:

Letter # 1:
The grain elevators are one of Buffalo’s greatest assets in the rough. The Great Northern is the only building of its kind, anywhere. Developing historical tourism is a win. Demolishing history is a loss. People will not visit the Giza Plains to see scale models and a historical marker saying: “Here stood the Pyramids.” Think for the future by embracing the past!

Letter #2, in response:
The Preservation Board cannot even get funding to restore a legitimate historical landmark like the Central Terminal, yet it would have us believe that tourists will flock to see a grain elevator? Sorry, I just don’t see that happening. And comparing the Great Northern to one of the seven wonders of the world like the pyramids, in terms of architectural importance, is just ludicrous.

The sentiments in these two letters are the two basic strains that have dominated the grain elevator demolition debate from its beginnings to the present. Reuse ideas for grain elevators have included using them as prisons, fish farms, hotels, and mixed-use entertainment facilities. Cities that have been able to convert their silos into functioning, inhabited buildings include Akron, Ohio; Barcelona, and Berlin.
True, any reuse project of these monsters would cost millions. But so would demolition, especially since most of the structures are no longer owned by the corporations who once operated them and would have paid for the demolition.

Even Carl Paladino, former owner of the H-O Oats elevator—which was demolished to make way for the Buffalo Creek casino—was once an advocate for silo preservation: “Keep them clean, keep them sealed up, and keep them,” he told Buffalo News writer Mark Sommer in 2003.

And the Industrial Heritage Committee, which has led boat tours of the grain elevators on the Buffalo River for the past twenty years, has been pushing its plan for an industrial heritage trail that celebrates the grain elevators—a plan that looks closer to coming to fruition. Currently, the Buffalo Riverfest Park project, which will be owned and operated by the Valley Community Association, will create a 2.5-acre public access linear park along the Buffalo River at Ohio Street, just east of Michigan Avenue. This park will offer a pleasant, nicely landscaped spot from which to picnic and have a relatively unobstructed view of Buffalo’s industrial remnants.

While reuse still looks like a distant dream, the idea of using the Great Northern and the other silos as a steel and concrete history lesson and an important element of Buffalo’s cultural tourism offerings is becoming more and more real—especially as waterfront development steadily continues.



Inset image: A "leg" that was once used to bring in grain, photo by Joe Cascio.

Banham, Reyner et al, Architecture: A Guide, MIT Press, 1981, Banham, Reyner, A Concrete Atlantis, MIT Press, 1986, Sommer, Mark, “A Grain of Respect: Recognition Coming for a City Landmark,” Buffalo News, 12/7/2002, Sommer, Mark, “Uncertain Future: the Company that Owns the Long-Vacant Great Northern Grain Elevator Wants it Demolished, but Preservationists Vow to Dig in their Heels to Resist Them,” Buffalo News, 5/12/2003, Vogel, Mike, “Tear it down or save it?; Finding a comfortable balance between development and preservation; may be the most important thing Buffalo can do for its future,” Buffalo News, 2/5/2006, Williams, Fred, “ADM Renews Efforts to Raze Grain Elevator, Worker Claim,” Buffalo News, 1/15/1997


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