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Preservation Ready: Silo City

Linking past to present, and beyond, at Silo City

Doug Hansgate

“Authentic regeneration” is the phrase Rick Smith uses to describe what is now taking place at Silo City; it could be applied to the whole of Buffalo. Authenticity—in the area’s historic architecture, arts scene, and no-nonsense people—is sought and found by many who arrive here. Some of the most significant sites of the American industrial past are found along the Buffalo waterfront. Grain milling, storage, and transshipment were seminal industries there. As Buffalo became an ever more powerful city, the entrepreneurs involved leveraged their strategic strengths to grow further.

What is now known as Silo City in the Old First Ward began in sections. It’s said that a ship captain could sail out into the lake, and, after about ten days, return to find a completely new, monumental building in place. Construction at this speed was previously unheard of, but state-of-the-art materials and techniques made it possible. At a ninety-degree bend in the Buffalo River, with first-generation wooden grain elevators standing sentinel nearby, is the reinforced concrete American grain elevator (once known as the Peavey). Built in 1906, it is now the second-oldest reinforced concrete elevator in Buffalo. Just east of the American, the Perot elevator was erected in 1907 by one of the earliest companies in the US; Anthony Morris II established his malting concern in 1687 in Philadelphia. Having thrived through many generations of family ownership, the firm decided to set up a division in Buffalo in order “to expand...take advantage of Buffalo’s good rail and shipping facilities, and be closer to Canadian and Midwestern barley sources.” (Buffalo Courier Express, Aug. 5, 1951)

The two grain elevators situated on the farthest east side of the peninsula are the Marine A (1925), and the Lake & Rail (1927–1930). Marine A was built by the Abell family, who had a good deal of experience in the industry; William H. Abell launched the Western Elevating Association just after the Erie Canal opened in Buffalo. Their firm built a wooden grain elevator on the waterfront at the foot of Michigan Avenue in the early days of the trade. Marine A, designed in concrete with simplicity and no ornamentation, symbolized a new era in grain storage. Lake & Rail, completed in four stages over a three-year period, curves dramatically, following the outline of the river, and is the second-largest flour mill in the country (Chicago has the largest).

The elevators, and the spaces surrounding them, fascinated early modernist architects. In Concrete Atlantis, Reyner Banham noted the ways in which the concrete giants influenced the sensibilities of designers like Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, and Le Corbusier. Writing in 1927, Walter C. Behrendt summed it up in his Der Sieg des Neuen Baustils:

“To do justice, it is necessary to say, and this will probably surprise the reader, that it was the example of America that gave the impulse to the German architects when they first tried to clarify the problem of structure. To be sure, this impulse did not originate in the skyscraper . . . but the simple structures of industrial building such as grain elevators and big silos . . . These examples of modern engineering, designed for practical use only, and obviously without any decorative assistance from an architect, made a deep impression by their simple structure reduced to basic forms of geometry such as cubes and cylinders. They were conceived as patterns exemplifying once more the essence of the pure form of use, gaining its impressive effect from its bare structure.”

Many feel that the innovative spirit of these early twentieth century giants can morph into a kind of laboratory for the arts and industry. Modern visionaries are utilizing the massive spaces for art installations, urban sport, and heritage tourism. Silo City, under the leadership of owner Rick Smith, is the closest to reaching its twenty-first century potential. “Swannie” Jim Watkins, who manages the site, has watched it evolve into a place where University at Buffalo masters students build minielevators for honeybees out of sheets of perforated metal, where artists of all disciplines can hold performances and create large-scale installations, where historians and preservationists can gather to learn history up-close, where experiments in glass, metal, and terra cotta can play out, and where kayak tours lead to a new rock-climbing gym and communal space in Marine A. Numerous interpretations and collaborations are cropping up, because the owner is open-minded enough to welcome them.

Smith and Watkins acknowledge the challenges of this place. It is difficult to balance the raw and edgy space with upscale arts and cultural experiences. They believe it is important to respect what Silo City is and take its stewardship seriously, while encouraging new ideas. Flexibility is key as they continue to push the envelope, hosting events that bring large crowds and new interest. How do they keep it special without restricting access? That challenging question remains to be answered, but at least they are making the effort to allow the public in. To come face-to-face with history, in such monumental structures, is a powerful experience. Modern innovators welcome the opportunity to interpret the past, in a way that leads us to the future.

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