History on a Towering Scale

By Lawrence Biemiller

Buffalo, N.Y. -- From a distance, which is how most people see the Concrete-Central grain elevator, it looks merely enormous. Its 100-foot-tall bins march three abreast for a quarter of a mile through tall grass that grows where the elevator's railroad sidings used to be. Its metal-clad head house rises another 85 feet above the bins. The white letters that spell out EASTERN GRAIN ELEVATOR CO. are at least as tall as a person; the letters that spell out CONCRETE-CENTRAL are taller still.

Grain elevators
Lynda Schneekloth and Robert Shibley

But Robert G. Shibley and Lynda H. Schneekloth aren't content to show off so grand a ruin from the far side of the Buffalo River. Mr. Shibley and Ms. Schneekloth, architecture professors at the State University of New York here, share a vision of preserving Buffalo's industrial past and making it an attraction for some of the 17 million-plus tourists who each year visit Niagara Falls, 20 miles to the north. Ms. Schneekloth locks the car and they set off on foot through a park that has reclaimed a stretch of the once-industrial shoreline. A steep bank brings them to an aging railroad drawbridge on which they cross the river. A narrow path through the grass ends at a shed beside the elevator, where hopper cars once loaded and unloaded grain from all over the Midwest. There is no fence.

"The grain elevators are so incredibly out of scale -- they truly are sublime structures," says Ms. Schneekloth, stopping outside the shed to look up at the towering structure. "You can't not be entranced." She pauses. "Or you hate them."

It's safe to say that Ms. Schneekloth and Mr. Shibley are among the entranced, like many architects before them -- including Gropius and Le Corbusier and other European Modernists, who were influenced by photographs of giant American grain elevators. Picking her way carefully past holes in the concrete floor of the rail shed -- she has broken a leg here before -- Ms. Schneekloth heads through an open doorway down to the elevator's shadowy main floor. As far as the eye can see, massive, graffiti-scarred concrete posts alternate with rusting metal chutes angled down from the bins overhead. "I always feel like I'm in a cathedral," she says.

Completed in 1917 and in use as late as 1973, the Concrete-Central elevator is the largest in Buffalo, having stored 4.5 million bushels of grain in 268 bins. The main bins, 20-foot-wide cylinders with walls eight inches thick, held 26,000 bushels each. Smaller bins fill the spaces between and around the main ones. Conveyor and distribution systems occupied the basement and the head house. Hopper cars positioned in the five-track shed could be filled from above or could dump grain onto conveyors that moved it into the building, where a bucket lift carried it up to the bins at a rate of 12,000 bushels an hour. The elevator now belongs to the city.

Ms. Schneekloth emerges into sunlight on the elevator's river side, where three movable 157-foot towers contained "marine legs" -- bucket-lift conveyors that could be lowered right into the holds of the lake steamers and Erie Canal barges docked alongside. Men called "scoopers" shoveled the grain into the lift buckets, Ms. Schneekloth says. It's hard to imagine such a busy scene now, with much of the towers' corrugated siding fallen away and the complex eerily silent and the water's smooth surface disturbed only by ducks.

It was Buffalo's growth as a transportation hub that led to the invention of the grain elevator, say Ms. Schneekloth and Mr. Shibley. After the Erie Canal opened, in 1825, ships bringing grain east across Lake Erie stopped here and unloaded their cargoes sack by sack. The grain went either into warehouses or into canal boats that carried it 360 miles across New York to the Hudson River. But in 1842, with grain shipments skyrocketing, a businessman named Joseph Dart hired Robert Dunbar, an engineer, to build a steam-powered lift mechanism for unloading grain from ships in bulk. The grain was lifted to the tops of tall bins for storage, then funneled into canal boats or, increasingly, railroad cars.

The Dart Elevator and those that followed were built of wood, which made them prone not only to fires but also to explosions -- grain dust is highly combustible. Operators tried building with steel and then with blocks of ceramic tile, but they finally settled on concrete as their material of choice, Ms. Schneekloth says. One steel elevator survives here -- the Great Northern, which is clad in dark-red brick. And one tile elevator not only survives but is still in use, at a big General Mills plant that produces Cheerios.

In their heyday Buffalo's elevators played an important role in the nation's economy, both as transshipment points between ships and railroads and as storage facilities. Each fall, lake freighters filled the elevators to overflowing before the lake froze, and then all winter and spring the elevators doled out grain by the trainload -- some for mills, some to be loaded back onto ships at East Coast ports and sent overseas. But the enlargement of the Welland Canal and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, in 1959, admitted oceangoing ships directly to Lake Erie, cutting sharply into the transshipment business.

Ms. Schneekloth and Mr. Shibley moved together to Buffalo from Virginia Tech in 1982, when he became chairman of the university's architecture program and she began teaching landscape architecture. By that time many of the elevators had closed, and Buffalo had been losing population for years -- in the 1950s the population was 650,000, and now it's 292,000. "The dean said, Any problem you ever wanted to study, we have it here," says Ms. Schneekloth.

"And on a small enough scale," Mr. Shibley adds, "that you can get your arms around it." Both professors have used the city as a teaching laboratory for students, and both have become involved in innumerable Buffalo-oriented preservation, planning, and environmental projects. They are the principals of the university's Urban Design Project, and they recently married after having lived together for 27 years.

But among their many interests, the grain elevators are perhaps the most unusual. Of the 17 surviving grain-elevator complexes here, only the General Mills elevator and one other -- the Standard elevator, which serves the giant food processor Archer Daniels Midland -- are operating today, says Ms. Schneekloth. The rest are too costly to demolish and too specialized to re-use for anything else, except storing cement. Two of the elevators are on the National Register of Historic Places; nominations for the others are in the works. The elevators have been fully documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record.

And now? Mr. Shibley says it might be feasible to use the elevators to store grain for processing grain-based fuel, but at this stage that's just an idea. Only one of the elevators faces an immediate threat, he says -- Archer Daniels Midland proposed demolishing the Great Northern for a parking lot. For the time being, he and Ms. Schneekloth are working to teach as many people about the grain elevators as they can. They have given a lot of tours, and they do so eagerly.

Because the Buffalo River area was industrial for so long, Ms. Schneekloth says, many Buffalo residents don't know their way around it. Plans are in the works to show movies next summer on a flat wall of the Lake and Rail elevator -- filmgoers will be able to spread blankets on the grass on the other side of the narrow channel. And the Buffalo River Urban Canoe Trail offers paddlers a self-guided six-mile tour.

"You can tell a lot of stories through the grain elevators," Ms. Schneekloth says, mentioning Great Lakes shipping, the Erie Canal, railroads, the labor movement, and Modern architecture. Mr. Shibley says that's where the elevators fit into a vision of Buffalo as a "heritage tourism" attraction.

In addition to the grain elevators, he notes, Buffalo has several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, a sprawling psychiatric hospital by H.H. Richardson, a notable church by Richard Upjohn, a landmark office building by Louis Sullivan, a spectacular Art Deco city hall, and a parks system by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. There are swing and lift bridges of every description, and archaeologists have recently dug up the remains of a lock that marked the western terminus of the original Erie Canal. There is much of interest in the surrounding region besides the falls, he says -- old forts at either end of the Niagara River, traces of the world's first commercial hydroelectric generating station, and the site of the infamous Love Canal chemical landfill.

But it's Buffalo's grain elevators that stand out -- industrial relics that now seem like mysterious, ancient sculptures. "They're really not buildings," Mr. Shibley says. "They're very, very big machines." Even so, seeing them up close is unarguably an aesthetic experience -- because of the stillness around them, and because of the way light plays over their cylindrical walls, but mostly just because they are, as Ms. Schneekloth says, incredibly out of scale. It's hard to imagine more striking monuments to a city's industrial past, or a nation's.

Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published November 26, 2004.