It’s been a few months now, but in July I had the chance to witness the destruction of one of Buffalo’s concrete grain elevators. Written about 30 years ago by Reyner Banham, and in the early part of the 20th Century by Corbusier and other European Modernists, the grain elevators on the Buffalo River are one of the world’s most important intact architectural landscapes. While many are currently sitting unused, their solid construction allows them to maintain their imposing presence even as windows get broken and their metal fittings rust.
I was initially alerted to the demolition of one of Buffalo’s elevators via the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s website but it was shocking to see the demolition actually taking place. The silhouettes of these structures are so seemingly permanent on the Buffalo landscape it is nearly impossible to imagine them disappearing or being altered, even when I consider all of the other important buildings I saw demolished while living in Western New York.
Seeing the gaping hole in the outer concrete wall of the building was a shock, knowing how quickly it was being demolished after standing on this site for 101 years. While the elevator complex being demolished is not the most architecturally significant of the structures that line the Buffalo River, the importance of the Buffalo elevators lies more in the complete landscape created by lining up a variety of these structures on a narrow river in the midst of an urban neighborhood. As buildings are demolished one at a time, the overall landscape is diminished- a landscape that is a testament to both the industry of the late 1800s and early 1900s and to the history of architecture.
The elevators are not all empty, Cheerios are still manufactured here and Gold Medal Flour is still milled in the same building photographed by Erich Mendelsohn in 1924 (one of these is reproduced in Reynar Banham’s Concrete Atlantis). 700+ foot-long lake freighters coming from the west still dock in this port and occasionally make their way through the sharp turns of the Buffalo river, yet the glory days are long over. In 1900 Buffalo was one of the ten busiest ports in the world, despite its inland location and the winter closure of its harbor each year. Now it’s the 28th-largest in the United States.
On a positive note, I did visit a new public park that has been created on formerly industrial land across the river from the under-demolition Wheeler Elevator. By allowing people to enjoy the river and encouraging urban kayaking and boating, I can only hope that the appreciation for this landscape grows in the general public or soon it will be too late.