Seeds of a New Movement

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The Erie Canal made Buffalo. Joseph Dart made Buffalo memorable.

Through Joseph Ellicott and the establishment of Greater Western New York west of the Genesee River, we’ve seen the importance of the canal from before it was even drawn up. We’ve witnessed how its opening paved the way for the creation of America’s first tourist destination – Niagara Falls. We’ll discover in a few chapters how it allowed our region to become ground zero for a cultural and spiritual revolution.

The primary impact of the Erie Canal, however, was commercial. Soon after it began operation in 1825, the cost of shipping a ton of grain dropped from $100 to a mere $10.1 Cities sprang up along its path with amazing speed. Rochester’s population grew from 331 in 1815 to almost 10,000 by 1830, prompting Nathanial Hawthorne to comment (in 1835), “The town had sprung up like a mushroom…”2 One wonders what the famed early-American author would have thought if he had found out one of the later architectural wonders in the Flour City would be called “The Mushroom House.”

Buffalo, representing the western terminus of the Erie Canal and the eastern terminus of the midwestern Great Lakes, quickly developed into a transshipment center. Grain arriving from lake freighters was trans-loaded to canal boats in Buffalo. The City’s growth exploded. Caroline Gilman, in The Poetry of Travelling in the United States (1838), said, “I had thought the other western towns great, but at Buffalo I almost rubbed my eyes to see if all was real.”3 Buffalo doesn’t appear on the U.S. Bureau of Census list of urban places until the 1830 census, when it ranked #27 in the country with 8,668 (behind Rochester’s #25 at 9,207).4 Oddly, given its strategic location, Buffalo (at #16 with 42,985 residents) doesn’t pass Rochester (at #21 with 36, 403 residents) until the 1850 census.5 Incidentally, Buffalo would first break into the top ten (at #10 with a population of 81,129) in the 1860 census, when Rochester would be #18 with 48,204 people.6

What might explain Buffalo’s leapfrog over Rochester between 1840 and 1850? For one thing, at the canal’s outset, there was very little grain to be shipped (and that was primarily from Ohio).7 However, by the late 1830s, Michigan and Illinois had begun to ship grain to Buffalo, causing concern the Queen City’s harbor would soon become one big naval traffic jam.8 From 1835 to 1841, the amount of grain transshipped in Buffalo increased from 112,000 bushels to more than 2 million bushels.9 The train would come to Buffalo in 184310 and begin to steal traffic from the Erie Canal; thus, providing some relief from the bottleneck. But the real hero did his dirty work the year before, and that work would eventually make Buffalo world famous.

In 1821, Joseph Dart, aged 22 and unmarried, came to the Village of Buffalo (for those keeping score, it’s population at that time was a mere 1,800) and set up a retail store on the southeast corner of Main and Swan Streets.11 Selling hats, caps and furs, Dart was quick to befriend the Indians, even learning their language, and it is said Chief Red Jacket visited his store often.12 In 1842, Dart’s cunning eye and business acumen sensed the coming congestion caused by the increasing grain shipments. In the fall of that year, he erected a storage facility for grain, and, in adopting a mechanical system he attributed to one Oliver Evans used in flour mills, Dart created the first steam operated grain elevator in the world.13 Among the features of his invention, the now familiar “marine legs” that poked into the ships’ holds like an elephant’s trunk to automatically scoop out the grain.

As might be expected of Western New York ingenuity, Dart had his skeptics. Mahlon King, one of Dart’s competitors, scoffed at the invention, telling Dart, “Irish backs are the cheapest elevators ever built.”14 But Dart would have his day, and, less than fifteen years later, with ten grain elevators with a storage capacity of 1.5 million bushels, Buffalo would exceed Odessa (Russia), London (England) and Rotterdam (Holland) to become the world’s largest grain port.15 Ironically, the success of the grain elevator likely led to the hiring of more Irish laborers than before.

As testament to the impact of Dart’s invention, Samuel M. Welch, a well-known Buffalo attorney, military man and author, once wrote of Buffalo Harbor in the 1830s, “As said of canal boats, the vessels were of small tonnage and capacity as compared with the ships of the present, and were increasing in number. After a succession of westerly winds they gathered in such numbers in the creek that you could pass from one to another across the creek on any part of it from the light-house pier to the foot of Washington Street, thus materially impeding the process of docking and unloading the vessels; all of which is changed since ‘Dart’s’ elevators came into use.”16

But, while the elevators quickly gained fame, that was about it. English novelist Anthony Trollope wrote of his visit to Buffalo in 1861, “over and above the elevators there is nothing especially worthy of remark at Buffalo.”17 But, as resilient as ever, Western New Yorkers were too busy to pay heed to this itinerant British subject. Business was booming, and, unfortunately, so were the elevators. Dart, who would eventually take to selling lumber, built his first elevator out of wood. In fact, most of the first elevators were made out of wood. Grain tends to explode or catch fire easily and wood tends to burn. And, so too, grain elevators.

That last surviving wood elevator was the Wollenberg elevator at 133 Goodyear Avenue, although its lineage goes back further. Wollenberg was constructed using the wood left over from the demolition of Kellogg “A” in 1912.18 Wollenberg lasted until October 2, 2006, when, you guessed it, it caught fire and burned. The City of Buffalo razed its remnants the next day.19

To thwart this combustible tendency, in 1897, both the Great Northern and the Electric elevators were constructed with materials designed to reduce the risk of fire and explosion. Each of these eliminated the number one cause of fire – fire. That’s right. Remember, Dart’s novelty was that he used steam to power the elevator. Steam requires boiling water and boiling water requires – you guessed it – fire. The Great Northern and the Electric elevators were among the first to take advantage of the newfound resource available cheaply in Western New York – hydro-electric power. This eliminated the need for steam, coal, fire and the usual ingredients that led to conflagration. It also eliminated the space taken up by steam-related paraphernalia. That meant more room for storage and, indeed, with a capacity of 2.5 million bushels, the Great Northern elevator was, for at least a short time, the world’s largest grain elevator.20

The Electric and Great Northern elevators were also among the first elevators built in Buffalo with materials other than wood. They used steel bins and, in the case of Great Northern, according to Timothy Tielman, Executive Director, The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, it is a “one-of-a-kind elevator” that “represents an important advance in the application and aesthetics of elevator technology.”21 Now, if you drive by it, you might think, “that doesn’t look like a grain elevator.” And you’d be right. Unlike like most grain elevators you see, the bins of Great Northern are enclosed in a brick building. This protects the steel bins (the ones inside Great Northern are the originals).22

Anyone taking the Skyway or Fuhrmann Boulevard or even Ganson Street can easily spot the Great Northern elevator, probably the most notable of the remaining elevators that once defined Buffalo’s waterfront. Today, that view is marked by the vast bulk of the concrete elevators, which use a technology developed immediately after the construction of the Great Northern (and is why you don’t see too many brick-sheathed steel bin elevators). The one unique characteristic about concrete is that it is, for all intents and purposes, rock. It might be man-made, but it’s still rock. And rock, being structurally recalcitrant (a.k.a., “hard”) is enormously expensive to remove. It’s probably why those footpads and the pier still linger as the last vestige of the ghost of the Genesee Viaduct we spoke of in the previous chapter.

But hardness can be a good thing, and it may be the only reason these monolithic monsters remain standing. There are a couple of classic views you should try to get see first-hand (if you haven’t already done it). You can take in these vistas from the comfort and convenience of your own (or somebody else’s) automobile. As a matter of fact, I recommend it be someone else’s automobile – or at least get someone else to drive while you sight-see. The panoramic is awe-inspiring, so you really need to stare at it for a while before it sinks in. That’s why someone else should be driving.

Classic View #1: The first classic view is from the Skyway. Unfortunately, the best way to view it is by going south on the north-bound side of the street (you can actually do this using Google Maps, or at least I was able to do it this way). Once you cross the Buffalo River (approximately above the old DL&W train sheds) start looking down the City Ship Canal. You’ll see the General Mills elevator and Mill complex. This is the part that smells like Cheerios (assuming you have your car windows open. The elevator is the northern most building and is white. It also has the General Mills logo on it. The Mill complex is to the south and immediately abuts to the City Ship Canal. This is the building to focus on. In particular, pay attention to the three cylindrical towers sandwiched in between the Mill and another building. These towers are part of the Washburn-Crosby elevator built in 1903. We’ll come back to that.

Going further south, You’ll see from St. Mary’s Cement (formerly Kellogg) and then Agway (formerly GLF). Kellogg is a traditional series of white cylinders in two separate groupings connected by a high bridge. The grayish GLF with its darkened windows looks like something straight out of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. Moving further south and butting up to the City Ship Canal is the famous Great Northern, whose aged brick façade looks more at home with the old Bethlehem Steel buildings found further to the south. Farther behind Great Northern, you’ll see more grain elevators in the vicinity of the Ohio Street Bridge. But, rather than strain our eyes from the Skyway, why not go straight to Ohio Street.

Classic View #2: Well, you could do that, and, having been there, the view looking towards the east up the river is fairly impressive. It looks as though the river cut a canyon through the grain elevators. But there’s actually a better view. Go to the north end of the Ohio Street Bridge and turn right on St. Clair. Follow St. Clair to the end and turn right on South Street. Just before the railroad crossing stop and look southwest up the river toward the Ohio Street Bridge. On your right is the very long Standard Elevator. On your left, from closest to farthest, is the flat wall of the Lake & Rail, followed by the Perot Elevator, then the American Elevator and finally the 1940 extension of all that remains from the Electric Elevator. Remember the American Elevator.

Classic View #3: From almost any vantage point, you can see the quarter-mile long Concrete Central. With its 4.5 million bushel capacity making it the largest transfer elevator in the world when it was completed in 1917,23 it’s impossible not to notice the isolated gray mammoth hugging the banks on the bend of the Buffalo River. Abandoned in 1966, in 2003 Concrete Central was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.24

Perhaps you’ve passed by these towering stone shrines so many times, you’ve come to ignore them. What you shouldn’t ignore, however, is their historical and internationally renowned import. Both Trollope in 1861 and later Rudyard Kipling in the 1880s, after visiting the Queen City, would describe Buffalo’s grain elevators in terms of beastly metaphor, a line of elephantine warehouses whose trunks sucked the life out of the passive lake boats docked by their sides. The Europeans would return after the turn of the century. This time, it was serious.

In 1909, Walter Gropius visited Buffalo and when his essay “Die Entwicklung moderner Industriebaukunst” appeared in 1913’s Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes, it included images of two Buffalo grain elevators – Washburn-Crosby (see Classic View #1) and the Dakota (demolished in 1966).25 Gropius then shocked the staid intelligentsia of European architecture by telling the world that America, not Germany, was the “Industrial Motherland.”26 Reyner Banham, in his 1986 book A Concrete Atlantis, says, “The Washburn-Crosby complex constitute the most internationally influential structures ever put up in America.”27

In 1919, Swiss-born architect and theorist Charles-Edouard Jenneret-Gris, Le Corbusier asked Gropius if he could use his pictures of the Buffalo Elevators.28 Le Corbusier’s 1923 publication Vers une Architecture (Towards a New Architecture) featured these grain elevators as prototypes for an industrially rooted style, calling American grain elevators “the magnificent first fruits of a new age” and stating “American engineers overwhelm with their calculations our expiring architecture.”29

With Towards a New Architecture fast becoming the bible of this new modern architecture, Erich Mendelsohn, taken by the pictures, visited Buffalo in 1924 to see the “elevator fortresses” first-hand.30  So enthralled, in a letter to his wife he described Buffalo’s grain elevators as “mountainous silos, incredibly space-conscious, but creating space… I took photographs like mad. Everything else so far now seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams.”31 Mendelsohn published Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten two years later and included photographs of several Buffalo elevators.32

All this work was limited to the French or German-speaking world until 1929, when Bruno Taut published Modern Architecture, which, as you can guess from the title, was written in English. This book presented a new Buffalo elevator – Concrete Central – to the world. The power of this gigantic edifice is best captured by Banham, who describes his feelings upon approaching Concrete Central this way: “I was looking at one of the great remains of a high and mighty period of constructive art in North America, a historical monument in its own right.”33

Walter Curt Behrendt in 1927’s Der Sieg des Neuen Baustils, would summarize the feeling of these thought-leaders of modern architecture as follows:

“To do justice, it is necessary to say, and this will probably surprise the reader, that it was the example of America that gave the impulse to the German architects when they first tried to clarify the problem of structure. To be sure, this impulse did not originate in the skyscraper . . . but the simple structures of industrial building such as grain elevators and big silos . . . These examples of modern engineering, designed for practical use only, and obviously without any decorative assistance from an architect, made a deep impression by their simple structure reduced to basic forms of geometry such as cubes and cylinders. They were conceived as patterns exemplifying once more the essence of the pure form of use, gaining its impressive effect from its bare structure.”34

Sometimes the hidden gem isn’t what you see in front of your eyes, it’s what you don’t see in front of your eyes. Forever silent, their colors ever so slowly blending with their surroundings, the ubiquitous grain elevators can seem to melt into the everyday background of our daily lives. Yet they carry within them secrets of a movement that defined twentieth century architecture.

Commuters pass through these great fields of modernist minimalism without a hint. In a similar way, our next hidden gem lies preserved, overlooked and noiseless beneath the feet – or, more appropriate, wheels – of a different city’s workers.

If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to buy the book at 50HiddenGems.com or Amazon.com and sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out the latest of what’s happening in our region.

1 Baxter, Henry H., Buffalo’s Grain Elevators, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, Volume XXVI, Buffalo, NY, 1980, p.1
2 “Bankwatch – Views of the Erie Canal,” Erie Canal – 175th Anniversary website, Union College, 2003, http://www.eriecanal.org/UnionCollege/Bankwatch.html |
3 Ibid
4 “Table 6. Population of the 90 Urban Places: 1830,” U.S. Bureau of the Census, Internet Release Date: June 15, 1998, http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab06.txt |
5 “Table 8. Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1850,” U.S. Bureau of the Census, Internet Release Date: June 15, 1998, http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab08.txt |
6 “Table 9. Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1850,” U.S. Bureau of the Census, Internet Release Date: June 15, 1998, http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab09.txt |
7 Tielman, Timothy, ed.,“Elevators: Monolith Monsters,” Buffalo’s Waterfront, A Guidebook, The Preservation Coalition of Erie County, Buffalo, NY, 1990, p.56
8 Ibid, p.56
9 “Grain Elevators – A History,” Buffalo History Works, web-site, 1981, http://www.buffalohistoryworks.com/grain/history/history.htm |
10 Hitchcock, Henry-Russell, “Buffalo Architecture in 1940,” Buffalo Architecture: A Guide, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1981, p.29
11 “Dart Street in Buffalo; So Who was Dart,” The Buffalo History Gazette, May 17, 2011, http://www.buffalohistorygazette.com/2011/05/dart-street-in-buffalo-so-who-was-dart.html |
12 Ibid
13 Baxter, p.2
14 “Grain Elevators – A History”
15 Baxter, p.2
16 Welch, Samuel M., Home History: Recollections of Buffalo During the Decade from 1830 to 1840, or Fifty Years Since, Peter Paul & Bro., 1891, http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?u=1&num=24&seq=7&view=image&size=100&id=yale.39002008407018 |
17 Leary, Thomas E. and Elizabeth C. Sholes, Buffalo’s Waterfront, Arcadia Publishing, 1997
18 Baxter, p.5
19 “Wollenberg Grain Elevator, 1912-2006,” FixBuffalo blog, October 1, 2006, http://fixbuffalo.blogspot.com/2006/10/wollenberg-grain-elevator-1912-2006.html |
20 Tielman, p.21
21 Tielman, p.41
22 Tielman, p.42
23 Jager, Ivonne, “The Grand Ladies of the Lake,” Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis: Buffalo Grain Elevators, The Urban Design Project, School of Architecture and Planning, University of Buffalo, State University of New York, The Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, Buffalo, New York, 2006, p.48, http://128.205.118.147/pub/pdf/concrete_atlantis.pdf  |
24 National Register of Historic Places, http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/ny/erie/state.html |
25 Steiner, Hadas, “Silo Dreams,” Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis: Buffalo Grain Elevators, p.107
26 Ibid, p.107
27 Tielman, p 60
28 Steiner, p.107
29 Tielman, p.58
30 Steiner, p.111
31 Tielmen, p.60
32 Ibid, p.18
33 Ibid, p.34

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