Can Grain Elevators Resuscitate Buffalo’s Economy?

If you find yourself at the right place along Buffalo, New York’s waterfront, and the wind cooperates, you can still detect a tinge of sugary sweetness in the air, floating, it seems, off the banks of the Buffalo River. It is the aroma of industry, and it comes from one of the two grain elevators that still operate here at the tip of Kelly Island. However, the days of the city’s fabled structures may be numbered, as a battle is raging about whether the historic, hulking elevators are hindering Buffalo’s economy.

Recently, ADM Milling Company announced plans to raze the oldest of the elevators, the Great Northern, which it has owned since 1993 but never put into use. The demolition is being contested by preservationists, who view the Northern—and the city’s other 17 elevators—as among Buffalo’s most valued historic resources, due to the way they revolutionized the grain industry and helped to define the image of this harbor town.

The Grain Elevator Project, a joint effort between the University of Buffalo and the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, is leading the fight to protect the Great Northern. According to Lynda Schneekloth, the Project’s co-director, the Northern is the city’s most important elevator. Aside from its age (it was built in 1897), it was the first grain elevator to use electric power to fuel its operations. It is considered to be the country’s only surviving example of an intermediate steel-bin elevator, meaning its storage units were constructed of steel, which was more reliable than the wood used in elevators before it, but less so than concrete, which was to become the industry standard.

Despite the elevators’ historic value, city officials and residents are concerned that prohibiting ADM Milling from demolishing the Great Northern may lead the company to leave Buffalo. The city’s Preservation Board has approved ADM’s request to raze the structure, but with several stipulations, including a requirement to post a $2.4 million bond for the construction of new silos.

Ultimately, the debate over the elevators is as much a battle over Buffalo’s future as it is over its past. Once a prosperous industry town and the largest grain port in the world, the city is perhaps now best known for its economic straits. Over the past half-century, companies have left Buffalo en masse, taking with them jobs—and the area’s brightest youths. Residents have become fatigued with failed plans to redevelop Buffalo’s downtown and jump-start the local economy. The city’s finances have even become such a mess that recently they were turned over to a state control board.

In a place with such a depressed economy, it begs the question: Should historic preservation be a strategy for Buffalo if it could end up leading yet another company to relocate, and adding yet another financial and psychological loss for the city?

Schneekloth, of the Grain Elevator Project, thinks it is all in the way you look at the situation. This past summer, two of the city’s oldest elevators were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Project is working toward designation of all 18 of the remaining structures. The group is attempting to garner support for the establishment of an industrial heritage corridor along Buffalo’s waterfront, a strategy she believes will draw tourists and revenue into the money.

It is not such a crazy idea. There was once a time when people from around the world traveled to the Queen City to see the elevators. Larger than most things being built at the time, and among the first concrete structures, they influenced the work of great architects like Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, and Le Corbusier. In fact, upon his 1924 trip to Buffalo, Mendelsohn described the elevators as “the preliminary phase of a future world just beginning to order itself.”

It’s unclear when a final decision about the Great Northern will be announced. However, in the meantime, the city’s preservation community is committed to doing everything they can to save it and other elevators, even at the risk of losing ADM Milling to another city.

“These elevators are an enormously significant piece of architectural heritage,” says Frances Kowsky, who wrote the city’s application for landmark designation. “Every time we lose an elevator, it’s a huge loss for Buffalo and it’s a loss of an important element of history. We can’t let that happen.”

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