Buffalo’s ‘industrial cathedrals’ slowly finding new life after heyday
A faded collection of grain silos left over from Buffalo’s heyday as a shipping hub tower like enormous cement pipe organs along the Buffalo River.
Too historic to tear down, too far gone to re-open, these “industrial cathedrals,” as preservationist Tim Tielman describes them, have stood frozen in time as Buffalo’s waterfront has transformed around them.
Lately, these sleeping giants are being re-awakened, not as offlimits industrial workhorses but places to eat, drink and play for a public eager to touch the city’s past. It’s all part of a renaissance of sorts in upstate New York’s largest city, driven by its biggest commercial building boom in 50 years.
More than 30 concrete grain elevators were built during the first half of the 20th century, evolving from earlier wooden versions. They stored the vast amounts of Midwestern grain transported from the central heartland and the Great Lakes to New York City via the Erie Canal, which had Buffalo as its western terminus on Lake Erie. The city became a boomtown as the great link in America’s grain chain after the canal was built in 1825.
But Buffalo saw its grain business dry up with the opening of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, which allowed gave oceangoing ships a direct route to the Great Lakes, bypassing Buffalo.
‘Reappreciation of what
makes us unique’
Over the next two decades, several of the elevators closed and were demolished. Thirteen of them remain today, with three in use, comprising what is believed to be the largest collection of the structures in the world, authorities say.
“It’s all about a re-appreciation of what makes us unique as a region,” said Rick Smith, who bought a collection of the grain elevators near his Rigidized Metals business with plans for an ethanol plant that were later scrapped as too costly. Since then, he has come to view the structures as “found art,” its potential revealing itself with the help of creative types whose perspective he values.
His “Silo City” and the grounds around them have become the setting for theater productions, outdoor concerts, foot races, literary readings and art installations, with plans for snowshoeing through a maze of trails to keep people coming year-round.
Nearby, the sprawling RiverWorks complex is the site of roller derby and 500-seat restaurant. One former grain silo has been covered with vinyl decals to resemble a giant Labatt Blue sixpack of beer, making clear the sponsor of an annual pond hockey tournament held each winter in its shadow.
The “six-pack” will soon house a craft brewery, developer Doug Swift said.
He envisions a climbing gym, ropes course and zip-lining next.
Combination of History
“What we have here is really unique, historical, industrial architecture that speaks to Buffalo,” Swift said, “and we wanted to incorporate that history and that architecture into the space.”
“Just the sheer kind of grandness of the architecture and where it’s situated on the Buffalo waterways makes it a really terrific site,” said Dan Shanahan, artistic director of Buffalo’s Torn Space Theater. The company has staged four site-specific productions at the grain elevators, at times using exteriors as projection screens while taking audiences through the echoing, often eerie interiors.
Next month, New York state’s Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. plans to turn the switch on a light show that will use the Connecting Terminal grain elevator as a year-round, ever-changing projection screen.
Along with waterfront improve- ments, there have been major additions to the city’s medical campus and the opening of a new hockey and hotel complex downtown. Construction of what will be one of the world’s largest solar panel production plants also is well underway, a project landed with the help of a US$1 billion pledge by Governor Andrew Cuomo intended to leverage additional investment.
As for the grain silos, Smith said he hears fewer calls for their demolition from old-timers who’d seen them as reminders of “our failed present.”
“You couldn’t rebuild them, you wouldn’t rebuild them,” he said. “They’re our castles.”