Demolition Moves Forward for Buffalo Grain Elevator Complex
City commissioner denies preservation board an injunction to stop demolition at historic industrial site
By Gwendolyn Purdom | Online Only | May 3, 2011
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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