Buffalo's Grain Elevators: Wonders of Industrial Art

Book is a stunning evocation of Buffalo's awe-inspiring industrial architecture

Release Date: January 8, 2008 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Concrete Central, Agway, The Great Northern, The Marine A, The Lake and Rail, Kellogg, Pillsbury, H&O Oats, Exchange American, Electric Annex -- these are just a few of the "Grand Ladies of the Lake" whose fascinating biographies and arresting photos are the subject of a new book on Buffalo's grain elevators edited by landscape architect Lynda Schneekloth.

"Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis: Buffalo's Grain Elevators" (2007, Urban Design Project and Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier) tells a colorful and deeply researched historic, economic and cultural story of the elevators through essays and articles by Schneekloth, professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, and several notable preservationists, urban planners and historians.

The book, rich with scores of photos, drawings, maps, floor plans, charts, history and anecdotes, also presents proposed projects for adaptive reuse of the 13 abandoned elevators that still stand on the Buffalo waterfront. The proposals are by 12 authors from the UB School of Architecture and Planning, Cornell University and Columbia University.

Some members of the public consider the grain elevators as decaying elephantine embodiments of the "concrete Atlantis" of the book's title, an industrial and trading metropolis that slowly disappeared during the past 60 years.

These authors, however, see them as distinguished works of industrial art, invented in Buffalo, whose world-wide adoption marked the enormous industrial and international trade wave of the 19th and 20th centuries and traced the rise and fall of the great transnational system of grain transportation.

Surprisingly, they also see them not only as constructions that defined an era, monuments to a vanished prosperity, but as the future of the Niagara Frontier.

Schneekloth and the book's other authors claim that the grain story should be celebrated as one of many that marks the remarkable economic history of the Niagara Frontier and should be used to initiate a renaissance of the transnational region.

This theme permeates the book, which is chock full of details so rich and plans so promising that they make the case for the Buffalo Grain Elevator Heritage Trail proposed by one of the authors.

Schneekloth says, "(Ours) is a history that includes not only the enormous grain industry and the railroads and canals that developed here at the same time, but major U.S. and Canada steel-making enterprises, pioneering electric power generation, extensive Great Lakes commerce enabled by New York State's Erie and Ontario's Welland canals, the manufacture of distinguished Pierce Arrow automobiles, and much more.

"The region's role in the wealth of both nations establishes a home for the story told by the book," she says.

"We should take great pride in our past, be eager to present its story to those outside this region," she says, "bring it into the present and let it help us set course for a future international conceptual park that includes the region's magnificent natural landscape, a tradition of enterprise and the arts, and deep involvement in the history of war, peace and freedom in the U.S. and Canada."

Schneekloth, in her detailed introduction, points out that as early as 1840, the Great Lakes Region, of which the Erie Canal was the hub, was handling more than 7 million barrels of wheat and flour a year, a number that increased exponentially throughout the next century. Storing, loading and unloading the grain posed problems, however.

The book explains how these problems were largely disposed of by Buffalonian Joseph Dart, who invented the grain elevator in 1842. These structures proved so successful in unloading grain from ships, drying and preserving even wet grain, storing it and unloading it onto railroad cars or barges for travel down the Erie Canal, that their use spread throughout the grain harvesting and transportation regions of the United States, Canada, Europe and South America.

By the 1880s, we learn that Buffalo had long been known as the "City of Grain Elevators" and by the first half of the 20th century, the city had the nation's largest capacity for the storage of grain. In fact, by 1917, the Concrete Central Elevator alone could store 4.5 million bushels.

During the past 165 years, elevators of wood, then of ceramic tile, steel and reinforced concrete rose along the Buffalo River and the city's harbor front. As earlier versions like the wooden Evans Elevator (which stood on the site of today's Erie Basin Marina) disappeared, they were replaced by new, larger and more technologically advanced elevators like the Standard, American and Perot Malting.

In their heyday, the massive, imposing elevators were a source of great awe and had a demonstrable impact on European thought about modernism and architecture. The book demonstrates this in its descriptions and critiques by Rudyard Kipling, Le Corbusier, Bruno Taut, Vincent Scully and of course by the late Reyner Banham, influential and prolific architectural theorist, critic and former UB architecture professor.

In fact, the book takes its name in part from Banham's "A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture 1900-1925" (1986), which addressed the development of concrete construction in American factories and grain elevators, and their relationship to modernism.

"They were," he wrote, "…buildings of great quality and power…like an avenue of mighty tombs." He likens them in size and scale to the massive Egyptian temples and as "examples of strategic economic infrastructure, technological wonders, architectural icons, or as objects of historic preservation."

"Our book, which takes us beyond their past and offers a potential future use for these 'mighty tombs,'" says Schneekloth, "was accomplished through the cooperation of the Urban Design Project (UDP) in the UB School of Architecture and Planning and the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, which provided historic documentation and successfully nominated two elevators in the Buffalo ensemble to the state and federal Register of Historic Places."

It was supported by a UDP grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Landscape Society grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.

The book's contributing authors are German planner Ivonne Jaeger, formerly of UB ("The Grand Ladies of the Lake"); Francis P. Kowsky of Buffalo State College ("Monuments of a Vanished Prosperity"); Hadas Steiner of the UB Department of Architecture ("Silo Dreams: The Grain Elevator and Modern Architecture"); Tom Yots, architect, preservation consultant and former historian of the City of Niagara Falls ("Challenging the Imagination: Adaptive Reuse of Grain Elevators"), and historian Michael Frisch of UB ("Where's the Fun in a Grain Elevator?").

A number of projects and proposals are also presented here by James Churchill, Sean Find, Michael Ross, Julia Kirton, Swapna Kulkarni and Priyanka Gupta of the UB Department of Architecture ("The Grain Elevator Heritage Trail"); Joshua Price, Department of Landscape Architecture, Cornell University ("The Digital Trace: Reconstructing Forms and Migration"); Catharine Callahan, Department of Landscape Architecture, Cornell University.

Also Mauro Cringoli and Rhona Vogt, of the University at Buffalo Department of Architecture ("Vertical Architecture: The Connecting Terminal"), Ivonne Jaeger of the UB Department of Architecture ("A Proposal for the Concrete Central"), and Takushi Yoshida, Department of Architecture, Columbia University ("Child Street Music Center"). The preface and introduction are by Robert Shibley, UB Department of Urban and Regional Planning and director of the UDP, and Schneekloth, respectively.

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