Demolition Moves Forward for Buffalo Grain Elevator Complex

City commissioner denies preservation board an injunction to stop demolition at historic industrial site

On the banks of the Buffalo River, the silhouette of one of the city's grain elevators has distinguished the landscape since the early 1900s. Now one elevator and associated buildings will be lost. After the original demolition order was denied by the preservation board, the Commissioner of Inspections and Licenses issued an emergency permit, allowing a development company to move forward with demolition.

Built in stages from 1909 to 1961, at its peak the grain elevator complex once employed more than 330 mill workers and dozens of wheat scoopers, and was the site of the Scoopers Strike of 1953, a key example of national tension between farmers and urban labor. The Cooperative Grange League Federation bought the property in 1929. (The corporation vacated the site in the 1970s.) Among the buildings in the demolition plans are the original 1909 Wheeler Elevator with its unique monitor roof, and the gable-roofed marine tower, both of which influenced architects such as Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Erich Mendelsohn.

"These grain elevators are central to our identity, it's a landscape you're not going to see anywhere else," says Tim Tielman, executive director of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, and a member of Buffalo's preservation board. "You're going to see maybe a big elevator sitting out on the prairie, you're not going to see a dozen of them lining this narrow waterway, it's a really compelling cultural landscape." The nonprofit  campaign was in the process of securing landmark status for three grain elevators and various outbuildings when the commissioner's demolition order  came through.

"The current situation points out the need to systematically move forward with designations and reuse strategies. Otherwise these very unfortunate and sometimes 11th hour efforts become all too common," says Tania Werbizky,  regional director of technical services at the Preservation League of New York State.

In October, a river boat tour of the threatened elevator complex and its history will be offered by the National Trust at its annual preservation conference.

"All stakeholders involved must see the great irony and lost opportunity of having this demolition proposed and moved forward in the very year that the National Trust is coming to Buffalo for its conference," Werbizky says.  "That should be a call to redouble efforts to preserve this important industrial heritage."

Representatives from property owner Ontario Specialty Contracting, whose offices are a part of the grain elevator complex, met with the preservation board in December to apply for demolition. The board requested more detailed information, history, and a structural report. According to board members, when the company did not provide complete information and proof that the buildings were unstable, the board denied the application in February. (Ronald Chapin of Ontario Specialty Contracting did not return calls for comment.)

That is when the city commissioner issued his emergency demolition order, citing an imminent safety threat at the property. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo then brought a lawsuit against both the commissioner and Ontario Specialty Contracting, requesting an injunction. Though the judge ruled in favor of the commissioner in March and partial demolition is now underway, the preservation board is still working for landmark status protection for the site.

"If [a building] does have historic merit then we have the opportunity to landmark it," Buffalo Preservation Board Chair Paul McDonnell says. "The trouble is the process to landmark is not just filling out a sentence saying 'This should be a landmark building.' It takes a lot of time and effort."

McDonnell acknowledges that neither the preservation board nor the Campaign for Greater Buffalo has reuse plans for the property. He notes, however, that it is a rare site—the only one in Buffalo that fulfills each of nine separate criteria for landmark status.

"This is tough for lay people because they look at [the buildings] and they see what they think are dilapidated, outmoded structures and they're not being used," McDonnell says. "For us to even leave them standing as monuments, I think it's totally acceptable and should be embraced."  

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Submitted by kev at: May 16, 2011
This article was brought to my attention by accidentally seeing a reference to it on the AHSS Facebook site, to my horror I must add. I support the advice at the end of this article - Glasgow lost Meadowside Granary in 2002/5, despite being listed as 50 of the 'most outstanding structures of the modern movement' in 1995. Mendelsohn referred to Buffalo’s grain silos as “silo castles” in his book “America” 1926. Please do not hesitate to read my full comment at the RCHAMS Site Record for Meadowside Granary, which is online, where I have mentioned the context of the Buffalo grain elevators and there national [or rather international] importance as monuments. The modern movement was first promoted [if not forged] by Gropius Le Corbusier and Mendelsohn et al by using images from these structures. Mendelsohn published “America” in 1926 after visiting Buffalo and updating himself on the early 1910s rhetoric from Gropius, who had also utilised images from Buffalo’s grain elevators for the 1914 Werkbund Jahrbook. In 1923 however Le Corbusier was content to merely borrow Gropius’ images rather than visit. I cannot stress enough how much attention was given to grain silos in the first half of the century in order to promote the modern movement. I have also found that there were many other reasons why such structures were deemed nationally important to America, which I have written about in my Diploma dissertation. Please feel free to peruse this by following the link given on the online RCHAMS Site Record for Meadowside Granary, which will take you to my own URL. Here you will see an extract from my dissertation.

Submitted by Brian at: May 5, 2011
Assuming the structures are safe, my imagination shows this location as an amazing backdrop to outdoor music festivals. Wouldn't it be a visually interesting scene for underground, alternative music? The silhouette of the towers could have become an icon on t-shirts and posters, etc. Oh well.

Submitted by PresHound at: May 5, 2011
Buffalo desperately needs political will and leadership, likely from outside the city confines, in order to save the building. The truth is that there is neither a local political will nor developers with much creativity to step up to save these important buildings. My only hope is that, with the Conference this fall, comes some "outsiders" who can help carry the heavy lift of stabilizing Buffalo's grain elevators.

Submitted by Bernarr at: May 4, 2011
Werbizky's comments are important and right on target. She should be congratulated for her intelligence and level-headed outlook. Wake up, Buffalo!

Submitted by marietta J. at: May 4, 2011
So, does anyone know if they saved the grain elevators?What did the town do about the demolition?

Submitted by Lorraine Pierro , president Buffalo Industrial Heritage Committee, inc. at: May 3, 2011
The Buffalo Industrial Heritage Committee will narrate the Buffalo River Tour of the grain elevators for the National Trust conference in October. The IHC has offered this popular tour to thousands of participants since 1986. Moreover, in 1990 the IHC sponsored the HAER documentation of the Buffalo grain elevators. It was the largest project ever undertaken by the Historic American Engineering Record.Four of the documented elevators(HO Oats, Urban, Wollenberg (the last wooden elevator in the City),Schafer Malting) have since been demolished by the City under"emergency demolition". The Wheeler will be the fifth.Despite the City's acceptance of the IHC proposal for an Industrial Heritage Trail in all of its waterfront plans, there seems to be no real understanding of the importance of these structures both nationally and internationally. Industrial Heritage Committee board member ,Henry Baxter P.E.,one of the foremost authorities on Buffalo's grain elevators ,offered to give a second opinion on the state of the Wheeler at no charge. His generous offer was scorned by Mr. Chapin. Numerous calls to the Mayor's office by the IHC were never returned. Lorraine Pierro President Buffalo Industrial Heritage Committee,Inc.