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

and Ar­chi­tec­ture

“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.”

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