Buffalo’s Grain Elevators: The Destruction of the Beginnings of Modern Architecture

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Standard Elevator

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.

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Grain Elevator Demolition, July 2011

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Marine tower adjacent to the Wheeler Elevator, July 2011 (prior to demolition)

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 http://buysoma.net 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.

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Cargill Electric and American Elevators

South Buffalo at Sunset
South Buffalo Sunset, 2010

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.

Buffalo Grain Elevators
General Mills Complex

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.

Buffalo River park
Buffalo River Park

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Great Northern/Pillsbury Elevator

Across an Inland Sea: reading a book that starts in the place you know best

Grain elevators on the Buffalo River
Grain elevators on the Buffalo River

Update: I am deeply saddened to have discovered that Nicholas Howe died of Leukemia nearly two years ago. I guess I won’t be meeting him any time soon after all.

I just finished a great book that I stumbled upon by accident while browsing at William Stout Architectural Books last weekend. It’s by UC Berkeley professor Nicholas Howe and is titled Across an Inland Sea: Writing in Place from Buffalo to Berlin.

It caught my eye at the bookstore because it has a photo of one of the Buffalo grain elevators on the cover with the frozen expanse of Lake Erie stretching in every direction. It’s a sight I am very familiar with as it is next to the highway that goes from Hamburg (where I grew up) to downtown Buffalo, and I’ve passed it more times than I can count. For many years, there was a huge blue-green rusting cruise ship docked next to it.

The book is about how the places we live change us and make us who we are, and what it means to write from various locales. The book starts with a description of Buffalo, where the author grew up and where his family had lived for several generations to Paris, Oklahoma, Berlin and finally Columbus, Ohio. I found the book particularly fascinating because not only did I grow up in Buffalo, but I have lived in Columbus and I’ve ended up in the Bay Area- where Howe moved shortly after the book was finished to teach at Berkeley.

Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze
Lake Erie in winter, before the freeze

I don’t think it was until I reached graduate school that I realized how fundamentally different peoples’ sense of the world could be, even amongst people who grew up in the same country speaking the same language. There were people in my classes who didn’t realize that there were parts of the country like Detroit (or Buffalo) where full grown trees had pushed their way up through buildings and railroad tracks vacated decades earlier. Seeing this gives you a world view where you realize how transitory the world around you can be, despite its seemingly permanent materiality. It is definitely at the core of how I view architecture and the urban realm.

Now I have to bump Berlin and Paris up my list of places I want to visit.

Santa’s Workshop and the Worst Bathroom Ever

Santa's Workshop, Hambug NYI just got back from a trip to Western New York to visit my family for Christmas. On Christmas night, my brother and I were out walking and happened to go past “Santa’s Workshop” in the Village of Hamburg. I remember seeing Santa here when I was a kid, except it was in a different parking lot. I can’t help but find it funny that kids think Santa resides in a log cabin/single-wide trailer in the middle of a plaza, but it worked on me when I was a kid.

Santa's Workshop, in the Parking Lot Santa’s workshop from afar.

At some point I ended up at the Old Pink on Allen St. in Buffalo. If you haven’t been to this bar, you really haven’t been to a dive bar. It’s filthy, open until 4am (4:30 sometimes) and doesn’t get crowded until at least 2am, the building is well over 100 years old and has never been cleaned, all the lights are red, people still smoke indoors and there is no running water in the bathroom. I even took a picture of the trough in the men’s room for you:

Men's Room at the Old Pink

If you can find bathroom worse than this please let me know. Other bars in Buffalo don’t count.

A thin film

Buffalo CIty Hall

At least half of my childhood memories of looking out a car window are slightly clouded by a film of salt on the window. It is a weird phenomenon to me now since I live in San Francisco. I guess the only equivalent is riding on the bus and trying to see out the window through the film of hair gel and graffiti on the inside and pigeon droppings on the outside, but the bus seems to be like that anywhere so that’s not really a San Francisco observation.

Frank Lloyd Wright in Buffalo; damp, moldy houses cause depression

Before I write about the two Wright houses I visited, I have to share this news article. Thanks to some groundbreaking research, it has been determined (scientifically) that Damp, Moldy Houses Cause Depression! Okay, to be accurate, they “MAY” cause depression. I don’t think I needed the American Journal of Public Health to tell me that. This article is not supposed to be related to the Wright houses, but I have a feeling the Martin House may have been damp for a while before the restoration started.
Darwin Martin House

Darwin Martin House, Buffalo NY- work in progress. Click here to visit my flickr page and to see more images.

While traveling last week, I had the chance to go to two different Frank Lloyd Wrght designed facilities. The first was the Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway in Buffalo. It was one of FLW’s most elaborate commissions, it consisted of a main house, a conservatory, a carriage house, a house for the client’s sister and another house for the gardener. It is said that the budget was almost unlimited when I was built around the turn of the last century.

I went on a deluxe tour that covered all parts of the site, and it was definitely worth the time. I had been to this house a few years ago, but it looks completely different now. The Martin House Restoration Corporation (the non-profit that is restoring the house and raising money) has rebuilt portions of the complex that were torn down in the 1960s. In the last few years, the pergola and carriage house have been rebuilt and the gardener’s cottage was purchased and opened to the public this summer.

This was one of Wright’s finest buildings, done at the peak of his career. I highly advise you to visit if you are in the area. I’ve heard that Wright kept the drawings for this house pinned up in his office for the rest of his life after it was completed.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff estate

The Graycliff House from the driveway

The other Wright complex I visited was the Graycliff estate, in Derby NY (only about half an hour from downtown Buffalo). I mentioned this house before in an earlier post, but I didn’t give any of the background. This house was also designed for the Martins, but Mrs. Martin was the main client here as opposed to the city house where her husband was in control. She wanted a light-filled and airy summer escape on the shore of Lake Erie. Wright obliged by giving her a fantastic house on a 70 foot cliff. The first floor is glass on both sides and very thin so that from the front, a visitor can see the water and the horizon through the living room.

This house was much better preserved because it has never been vacant. A religious group (the Parist fathers, a group of priests from Hungry) owned it and lived there until a few years ago when it was purchased and restoration began. The priests never tore down any of the original buildings, so the work necessary here is not as extensive as at the Buffalo house.

Markasaurus is Out of Town: Graycliff, dinosaurs and more

Dinosaur Planter

Plastic Dinosaur Flower Planter, Derby NY

I’m going to be out of town for the next few days, so I won’t be posting much. I am visiting my family in Buffalo. I’ve been to two different Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the last two days which I’ll post about when I get back.

Here are some photos of the Graycliff Estate in Derby, NY which Wright designed in 1928. I’ll post photos of the Martin House in Buffalo soon.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff

Front of the Graycliff House

Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff

Waterfront side of the Graycliff house

Lake Erie- 18 Mile Creek

Mouth of the 18 Mile Creek at Lake Erie, near Graycliff