Published April 23, 2012
In October 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held its annual conference in Buffalo, galvanizing local, national and even international attention around the city’s architectural landmarks. The School of Architecture and Planning, closely involved in many aspects of the conference, took the opportunity to direct the spotlight on some of its most beloved Buffalo buildings – the grain elevators along the Buffalo River.
As part of the event, the school welcomed conference-goers, alumni and friends to a close encounter with the colossal concrete silos, once the lynchpin of Buffalo’s booming grain transshipment industry. The event featured three elevators – Marine A, Perot and American – generously opened by their owner, Rick Smith of “Silo City” and Rigidized Metals.
Hundreds showed up to the sold-out event, eager to experience the height, mass and gritty beauty of these typically off-limits structures. They were treated to a complete sensory experience, with tours of their cavernous interiors, presentations on their history and construction, reverberating musical and vocal performances, photographic exhibits and plays of light on malting kilns and grain bins.
Yet these urban explorers are hardly the irst to be enchanted by Buffalo’s grain elevators. Jutting in massive scale along the shorelines of the Buffalo River and Lake Erie, the elevators have captivated observers since their invention and initial construction here in the mid-19th century. Their monolithic form and sheer size have provoked comparisons to “cathedrals” and “monuments.”
The grain elevators are internationally noted as a precedent for modernist architecture. Their simplistic form and unadorned functionality were cited in the early 20th century treatises of European modernists such as Gropius, LeCorbusier and Mendelsohn.
As the conduit for the region’s prosperity as a hub for grain storage, processing and transfer – and a place where Buffalo’s working class toiled for the better part of a century – they are a tangible connection to the region’s rich industrial heritage. During the irst half of the 20th century, Buffalo had 30 concrete grain elevators along its harbors, making it the largest in the nation for grain storage capacity.
They also suggest Buffalo’s tradition of innovation, with the elevator and “marine leg” for scooping grain from the hulls of lake freighters invented here by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar in 1842. Other innovations include the 1906 American elevator, Buffalo’s first concrete elevator and among the first in the nation to use the continuous concrete pour in slip form. And the quarter-mile long Concrete Central elevator was the largest in the world when it was built in 1918.
Perhaps no one has been as inluenced and inspired by these structures as the School of Architecture and Planning. For nearly 30 years, the school has documented their history, used their spaces as a setting and subject of design, celebrated their signiicance, and creatively considered how to reuse them so that they might endure in the architectural, historical and cultural fabric of the region. Peter Reyner Banham, the English architectural historian and critic who taught here in the late 1970s, was so inspired by Buffalo’s industrial landscape that he wrote “A Concrete Atlantis,” a pivotal text documenting the modernist inluence of American factories and grain elevators.
Since then, a generation of faculty, students and alumni have been similarly moved, their insights and imaginings captured in an impressive collection of writings, built works, design research, preservation policy and public service. The school continues to work closely with Rick Smith, a Buffalo businessman who bought the three elevators comprising Silo City, to explore a permanent architectural studio presence there, pursue design research endeavors and support the development of the grain elevator district as an international cultural destination.