Great Northern Grain Elevator - Table of Contents


Nomination - Great Northern Grain Elevator
250 Ganson Street, Buffalo, NY

1897
Present owner:
ADM Archer Daniels Midland

The essay below is a reprint of the application for landmark status.
City of Buffalo landmark status approved 4/10/90

Table of Contents, subheads, bullets, and color type were added for ease of reading.

Photos on this page were NOT part of the nomination.


Special thanks to the
Buffalo Preservation Board for making this application available for reprinting


Click on photos for larger size and additional information

Buffalo Grain Elevators map

 

A 2001 tour guided by PresCo Exec. Director Tim Tielman views the Great Northern (Pillsbury) and the Pillsbury Mill (left) in McCarthy Park

 

The Pillsbury Mill (left) and the Pillsbury Grain Elevator (Great Northern)

 

The Great Northern has also been sold various times and has been known as the Mutual, the Pillsbury, and the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)

 

The Pillsbury Mill (left) is connected to the Pillsbury Grain Elevator (Great Northern) by a conveyor belt.

Top of the Great Northern/Pillsbury elevator: The four story "head house" - also referred to as the "cupola" - is an independent structure, steel-framed, hung from the top of the walls.

Below the head house is the house containing bins for storing the grain.

 

Great Northern

Great Northern (Mutual) Elevator, looking south down "City Ship Canal," Electric Elevator in background left.

 

Close-up view of the "Merle M. McCurdy" in the foreground, the Great Northern Elevator in the background.

 

Great Northern: Closer view of marine tower and lake steamer

 

Great Northern: Outside motor and winch at base of tower for moving tower

Great Northern: Full length view of rear of marine leg showing spouting hopper and movable apron.

 

Great Northern: Drawing

 

Great Northern: Plan of bins

 

Great Northern: Drawing

 

Great Northern: View looking up in steel silo

 

Great Northern: View looking up between steel silos

 

Great Northern: Basement level , bottom of main silos with distribution chutes

 

Great Northern: Interior view, top level, looking north

 

Great Northern: Detail of Westinghouse electric motor with exposed chain

 

Great Northern: View looking south at scales and weighing tank

 

Perspective view looking north at the Great Northern Elevator, the "Merle M. McCurdy" and tug boats in the foreground

 

Close-up view of the the "Merle M. McCurdy" and Great Northern Elevator

 

View looking west at Standard Elevator elevation

 

Standard Elevator: View looking north, detail view of marine towers

 

Standard Elevator: Close-up view of marine towers

 

Grain off-loading procedure, workmen using ropes to control marine legs and shovels during final stages of off-loading procedure

 

December 25, 1897 Scientific American feature on Great Northern Elevator

 

Detail: Scientific American feature on Great Northern Elevator

 

Detail: Scientific American feature on Great Northern Elevator

 

Introduction


The 1897 Great Northern Elevator at 250 Ganson Street is an outstanding example of an intermediate steel grain elevator. It is the only local example and the sole surviving "brick box" working house elevator in North America. It was designed by engineer Max Toltz, who was the bridge engineer of the Great Northern Railway Line. The plant holds an important place in Buffalo's history as an example of the city's historic role as a grain capital and as a center of transportation and commerce.

The Great Northern was one of the largest in the country when first built, with a storage capacity of approximately 2,500,000 bushels. The elevator mechanism, first invented in Buffalo in 1842 by Joseph Dart, solved the problem of how to mechanically raise the grain from the boats to storage.

Max Toltz's design of steel enclosed in brick was a thermally efficient solution to the problems of spoilage and combustibility. The Great Northern Elevator is one of the earliest surviving elevators in the Buffalo River District and is a pivotal example illustrating the technological shift from timber to steel to the final industry standard, concrete.

Individually, the Great Northern Elevator is worthy of landmark status. Within its riverfront setting, the elevators of the elevator district form an outstanding grouping of historic and architectural significance and mark Buffalo as the "elevator capital" of America.


Criteria for Landmark Designation:

1. The building has character, interest or value as part of the development and heritage of the City of Buffalo

The Great Northern Elevator is a landmark in the history of the grain elevator, itself a Buffalo invention, and a monument to the rise of modern industrial architecture in the United States and to an era when Buffalo was a center in a great regional network of commerce and transportation that reached from Chicago to New York.

2. It exemplifies the historic and economic heritage of the city

The Great Northern, long known as the Mutual Elevator, and today as the Pillsbury is a visible reminder of Buffalo's heyday as a hub in the national grain market system. Its location on the Great Lakes, the Erie Canal, and evolving rail system and improving highways led to Buffalo's growth. Midwestern grain was shipped by lake boat to Buffalo, the western terminus of the Erie Canal, and by canal boat to New York.

The grain elevator developed as a mechanical solution to the problem of raising grain from the lake boats to bulk storage bins where it remained until being lowered for shipment on canal boats or railroad car. Less than fifteen years after Joseph Dart's invention of the grain elevator, Buffalo had become the world's largest grain port, surpassing Odessa, Russia; London, England; and Rotterdam, Holland.

3. It is identified with persons who significantly contributed tot he development of the city

The basic mechanism of the grain elevator -- the marine "leg," which reaches down to elevate the grain from the holds of ships -- originated with Buffalo native Joseph Dart's bucket elevator of 1842. Marine legs, whether mobile or still, are a conspicuous feature of all Buffalo's riverside elevators.

The Great Northern was built in 1897 for the Great Northern Railway Line and designed by Max Toltz, ASCE and Bridge Engineer for the Great Northern Railway with Chicago architect D.A. Robinson. The mill was one of the first to run on electricity. Newcomb Carleton of Buffalo designed the electrical plant.

4. It embodies distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style valuable for the study of a period, type and method of construction

The Great Northern Elevator is of a unique design having steel bins enclosed in a brick sheath, reputedly the last of the "brick box" type still operational in North America.

It is one of three elevators of heroic scale designed by Max Toltz and built just after 1895; the Great Northern, one in Duluth, Minnesota, and one in West Superior Wisconsin. These set the engineering world on fire and were acclaimed as "among the most important engineering works of modern times." These elevators were the first cost effective and thermally efficient methods of bulk grain storage.

The Pillsbury mill adjacent to the Great Northern was designed by M.A. Lehman and is the largest of the 30 plants in the Pillsbury system and the second largest grain mill in the country. It houses the largest single grinding floor in the world with 160 stands of rolls.

The Great Northern (along with the Electric) is a historically important example of intermediate phase elevators with steel bins and pointed the way to the later form with cylindrical concrete bins. Buffalo is regarded as having the best historical collection of elevators extant and is often considered the "elevator capital" of America.

5. It embodies elements of design, detailing, materials, or craftsmanship that render the structure architecturally significant

The Great Northern elevator consists of the standard components of a working house elevator:


The distinctive features of the Great Northern are

6. It is a unique location or contains singular physical characteristics that make it an established or familiar feature within the city

The Great Northern is the last surviving elevator on Ganson Street, once lined with elevators on both sides. It is a visual landmark from Kelly Island, the location of all of Buffalo's remaining grain elevators. It is visible from the Skyway, from the Buffalo River and old Ship Canal, and from the Ohio Street Bridge and Ganson Street. It is rapidly recognizable by its brick box and metal cupola.



Architectural Description

The Great Northern Elevator, built for the Great Northern Railway Line, is located on the west side of Ganson Street adjacent to the City Ship Canal. It is central to the Buffalo River District and is found between the Ohio and Michigan Street bridges.

The elevator with its adjunct, the later flour manufacturing plant, are sited on an irregular shaped oblong piece of land less than one quarter mile from the Buffalo River. The River District contains approximately a dozen grain elevators amidst other general industrial facilities.

The elevator consists of

The distinctive features of the Great Northern, built as an "elevator of the future," are


Foundation: Excavation for the foundations was begun late in February, 1897.


Appearance: Externally, the Great Northern looks like a huge brown brick box, ten regular stories high and just over 300' long. The landward (east) side at Ganson Street is a solid brick wall, almost uninterrupted by openings, with buttressing extending the full length of the facade and corbeling under the low-pitched roof.

Marine towers or legs: At the marine (west) side, the building is equipped with two loose legs clad in corrugated iron. These nine story marine towers are capable of moving along the track at the distributing floor under their own power.

The north wall has segmental arched window openings with paired square-headed, double-hung windows at the roof level.

4-story top cupola:The four-story gabled cupola surmounts the roof. It too is sided with corrugated metal and each story is defined by a series of square-headed, double hung 12-over-12 windows.

Bins: Inside the mill, 48 main cylindrical steel bins and 30 minor cylinders are packed between the main bins and between the bins and the outer walls. These bins do not extend to the floor, but are supported by a chassis of 18" built up steel I-beams. The elevator to the work floors in the cupola was specially shaped to fit the leftover space in one corner of the box.

To support the cylindrical storage bins eight steel columns for each bin was employed. The columns are 25 1/2' long and support a circular steel girder [Ed. note: A "girder" is a horizontal beam that is used as the main support] to which the shell of the tank is riveted at the juncture of the hemispherical bottom with the cylinder. Resting on the circular girder directly above the columns are the columns which support the cupola floors and roof.

The bins for storing the grain are 48 in number and comprise: 30 bins 38 " in diameter placed in three rows of ten bins each, and 18 bins 15 1/2' in diameter placed in the interstices of the larger bins in two rows of nine bins each.

The main floor at the level of the tops of the tanks, consists of 6" I-beams running the length of the building covered by a steel plate flooring 1/8" thick. The cupola floors are also composed of steel plates and I-beams.

Reyner Banham describes his tour of the interior:

The bins do not come down to the ground; the chassis supports their deep conical bottoms well above an open floor, and from their bottoms extend tubular chutes that can be swiveled to discharge into pits in the floor, from which internal lofting legs carry the grain to the top of the headworks, whence it can be redistributed to other bins during blending operations.

The conical bin bottoms, lofting legs, oblique chutes, and the legs of the chassis, seen together, seem like a gigantic surrealist architecture turned upside down or like the abandoned cathedral of some sect of iron men.

Weird as this may sound, it is a highly impressive space, monumental in scale and in the quality of the work, and that is a rare experience in the world of grain elevators, which are not usually, nor need be, provided with anything like public spaces.

The head-house too is almost cathedral-like: long, lit by ranks of industrial windows in the corrugated roofing on either side, filled with a golden-gray atmosphere of flying grain dust sliced by low shafts of sunlight. The space is laced lengthwise by flat rubber belt conveyors loaded with grain and laced diagonally by more movable chutes for directing the flow of grain. Weigh bins over the heads of the main bin measure the flow, batch by batch, as it goes from bin to bin.
(Reyner Banham, A Concrete Atlantis, p. 121. Also, for the most specific discussion of operations at Great Northern, see "The Steel Tank Grain Elevator "Great Northern" at Buffalo, N.Y." Engineering" News, p. 219)


Pillsbury Company Flour Mill

To the south of the Great Northern Elevator is the Pillsbury Company's flour milling plant. This mill, attached by conveyor, is a



Historical Significance

The Great Northern Elevator is a landmark in the history of the grain elevator, itself a Buffalo invention, a monument to the rise of modern industrial architecture in the United States and to an era when Buffalo was a center in a great regional network of commerce and transportation that reached from Chicago to New York.

The Great Northern Elevator was built in 1897 for the Great Northern Railway Line and designed by Max Toltz, American Society of Civil Engineers, and Bridge Engineer of the Great Northern Railway.

The structure was built as an all steel elevator "of the future" and had at the time an unusually great storage capacity of 2,525,890 bushels.

The Great Northern elevator consists of a house, cupola, and transferring apparatus, the principal elements of a grain elevator complex.

Its distinctive features are


The original three towers toppled in a storm in 1922. Between 1923 and 1928 the present two towers were installed.


Pillsbury Mill

In 1921 Pillsbury purchased the plants at Ganson Street. The mill connected with the grain storage elevator and warehouse by conveyor system was designed by M.A. Lehman. The mill, the largest of the 30 plants in the Pillsbury system, is the second largest in the country. It houses the largest single grinding floor in the world with 160 stands of rolls. Pillsbury invested about $10,000,000 in building the mill. The first commercial flour came from the mill on May 27, 1924.

In 1939 Pillsbury began modernizing the mill at a cost of $300,000. A devastating explosion and fire January 2, 1972, led to a $400,000 partial renovation of parts of the plant that were destroyed or damaged.


Evolution and Types of Grain Elevators

Country elevators: In the development of the grain industry, the country elevator was the early form of storage and represented the point at which grain was sold by farmers. Country elevators developed as a series of way stations every few miles along rail lines.

Concentration of production, quantity of sales from farms, and the distance grain could be hauled by horse and wagon were major factors influencing elevator size and the distance between elevators.

Terminal elevators were located in market centers where facilities existed for bringing buyers and sellers together to inspect grain, determine price, and transfer ownership. Country elevators consigned grain to a representative at these centers and were the owners until a deal was struck. Much of the grain moving through the marketing system was shipped through these centers.

Buffalo: Development of better communications, standardized grain grading, commercial feeding, increased size of processors, growth of the export market, and evolving rail system, and improved highways and waterways all caused significant changes and pointed to Buffalo as a hub in the market system.

Prior to 1827 there was no grain handled in Buffalo. Surplus grain from the Midwest reached eastern markets over long and difficult routes. Grain grown in Ohio was shipped on flatboats down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans where it was transferred to sailing vessels that carried it to the east and beyond, or it was carried overland through the Appalachian Mountains in wagons.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 represented a revolution in transportation. The Canal was the first efficient transportation system to breach the Appalachians. Midwestern grain could now be shipped by lake boat to Buffalo, the western terminus of the Erie Canal, and by canal boat to New York.

Soon the freight charges dropped from $100 to $10 a ton for grain. The one difficulty, however, was transfer of grain from the lake to the canal - even the smallest lake boats were too large for the canal, while canal boats were too small for lake traffic. In 1830, 146,000 bushels of grain were handled at Buffalo. A decade later, the toll was two times that and at least 500 workers, most of them Irish immigrants, were required to move this volume of grain by hand.

Joseph Dart: In 1843 Joseph Dart of Buffalo solved the problem of handling the grain with the invention of his steam-powered elevator. Dart's bucket elevator raised grain from lake boats to built storage bins where it remained until being lowered for transshipment or for milling.

The elevator had a storage capacity of 55,000 bushels. In a paper read before members of the Buffalo Historical Society in 1865, Joseph Dart paid tribute to his acquaintance, Oliver Evans, an American inventor and millwright who invented a gravity-fed grain mill with a bucket conveyor as the means for raising grain to storage bins at the top of the plant, where it would flow down under its own weight through the sequence of milling processes.

Dart, in addition to creating the first steam transfer and storage elevator in the world, devised a means of lowering the bottom end of the bucket into the holds of the large vessels that brought grain across the Great Lakes or of the barges that moved it along the Erie Canal. This was a turning point in the industry, marking a shift from the manual labor of men on ladders to a mechanized
system.

The new technology was an assembly of mechanisms already to hand: the bucket conveyor, the steam engine, rope-and-pulley power trains, and the like. The most crucial features of Dart's invention were that it, first, eliminated the intermediate handling stage at wharf level and raised the grain directly to the tops of the bins by, second, using a rigid, nearly vertical frame to carry the bucket, chain, and sprocket assembly. The frame could be raised and lowered as a complete unit by means of a cradle of ropes and pulleys whose winches were powered by the same steam engine as drove the bucket conveyor.

In a later improvement, further power from the steam engine was tapped by another set of winches pulling ropes attached to large wooden scoops that were used to drag loose grain across the floor of the ship's hold and into the jaws of the conveyor.

This complete, independently powered assembly, if contained in a building of its own, was (and still is, where it survives) identified as a "marine tower" or more familiarly as a "leg"; in Buffalo, at least, it was known as a "stiff" leg if permanently built into the storage structure or a "loose" leg if movable.

Early versions of the loose leg were mounted on their own barges or floats and were used for transferring grain between floating vessels. This type remained in use in many ports until after 1900 and can be seen in old photographs -- tall, pyramidal wood-clad structures wrapped in the steam and smoke from their own power plants.
(Reyner Banham, "A Concrete Atlantis," pp. 110-111)

Dart's pioneering effort was quickly and widely imitated. Less than fifteen years after his was built, there were ten grain elevators in operation near Buffalo Harbor. They had a storage capacity of 1.5 million bushels. By this time Buffalo had become the world's largest grain port, surpassing Odessa, Russia; London, England; and Rotterdam, Holland.

Dart's elevator was built of wood. Plentiful in the Buffalo area, wood was used for construction of grain elevators for half a century. The earliest elevators were located on or near the water and served only lake or canal boats. Later materials included steel, concrete, tile and brick. Although the exterior arrangement often varied, the interior arrangement was always similar. "Engineering News" in 1898 noted:

To all but a few of our readers doubtless the exterior aspect of the modern storage elevator for grain is familiar enough, but a much smaller number probably is acquainted with the interior arrangement of these structures.

Briefly described, the main body of the building, called by elevator men "the house," is mostly occupied with bins for storing the grain, while the surmounting structure, which is generally three stories high, and is called the "cupola," contains the operating machinery and working rooms.

Generally the topmost story of the cupola contains the leg-driving machinery and urnhead spouts; the middle story, the garners, and the lowest story, the weighing hoppers and cleaning machines.

Below the cupola and main roof, and extending over the entire width and length of the house is the distributing or spout floor. Here are the conveyors for transporting lengthwise of the building, and the distributing spouts for transferring by gravity from the scale hoppers to the bins.

By means of the "legs," [Ed. note: This refers to legs inside the building, as opposed to the exterior marine towers or movable legs] reaching from the bottoms of pits sunk below the foundations of the bins to the topmost story of the cupola, and containing bucket conveyors, the grain is elevated to the turnhead spouts and discharged into the garners. From these it passes to the lower floors where it is weighted, cleaned, if desired, and finally spouted to its proper bin.
("The Steel Tank Grain Elevator "Great Northern" at Buffalo, N.Y, " Engineering News," p. 218)

Wood Elevators: Timber was the principal material used in building early grain elevators and was seen in Buffalo in Dart's elevator and in the long destroyed Watson, which had a distinctive cupola and a slip that led underneath it which permitted a canal boat to travel inside the elevator and inside the bins. This enabled the boat to be loaded rapidly by gravity flow.

Henry H. Baxter ("Grain Elevators") notes that in 1865, when Dart presented his paper to the Buffalo Historical Society, there were 27 grain elevators built on land, plus two floaters, all 29 of wood. He also documents the Wollenberg elevator, at 133 Goodyear Avenue, in 1979 as the only surviving wood elevator in the Buffalo area.

As grain trade grew towards the end of the century, and as the flour milling and the animal feed industries began their rapid expansion in Buffalo, the need for larger and larger storage vessels grew and grain storage vessels became the dominant component of the elevator system.
Timber bins for early elevators and granaries were shallow to assure that the load of the grain was taken mostly as dead weight on the floors of the bins rather than as bursting pressure against
the walls. Broad bins were wasteful of ground space at the wharf so the push was on for the creation of a taller form.

Cribbed Bin: The cribbed bin was the first solution. Built in 1870'5, it reached about 70' in height and its rectangular walling was made up of layers of planks, usually 2" x 4", 2" x 6", or 2" x 8"5 laid flatwise . and spiked together firmly. This was rigid enough to resist bursting pressure, strong enough to withstand sudden vacuums that could develop when the grain began to move, and cheap enough to build as long as wood was inexpensive (although insurance costs were high). But the construction was inherently flammable and the atmosphere heavily laden with grain dust that could (and did) often explode violently in the presence of sparks from lamps, steam engines, or friction from inadequately lubricated moving parts.

The search for a more fireproof form of construction was the main motive behind the many experiments with materials and structural procedures that marked the 1890's through the first decade of the twentieth century. The steam boiler (essentially a storage tank for liquids) was the model for the geometry. Built of riveted steel plate and cylindrical in form, the bursting leads were taken up as pure tension on the outer skin.

Steel Elevator: The first steel elevator in the United States was the Washington Avenue elevator of the Grand Point Storage Company, Philadelphia, built by George H. Johnson, started in 1859 and completed in 1866. The method was slow to catch on for several reasons:

(1) the comparatively high cost of steel compared to wood, and the specialized skills required to build it (riveting vs. hammering);
(2) rust and corrosion;
(3) steel's poor performance as a thermal insulator; and
(4) the geometrical problems of packing circular bins into the rectangular building required for thermal insulation.


The Great Northern in Buffalo was the first notable example of a working house steel elevator. Max Toltz built the Great Northern with a capacity of roughly 2,500,000 bushels and he soon eclipsed that with the 3,000,000 bushel terminal elevator at West Superior, Wisconsin, put into operation in 1901. Engineering" News in 1901 noted that "The great increase in the capacity and mechanical equipment of grain elevators, combined with the substitution of steel for timber in their construction, have placed these structures among the most important engineering works of modern time."

The classics of the steel elevators were Buffalo's Pioneer Steel Elevator of 1901; the slightly later Electric Steel Elevator in Minneapolis; and the Electric Elevator (later the Cargill-Electric) built in 1897 on Childs Street and demolished in 1984.

Electric Elevator: The Electric too, was the pioneering elevator in abandoning the building and letting the circular bins stand out in the open air. Unlike the Great Northern, a self-contained working house elevator with all storage bins in the main elevator or working house, the Electric had a working house and steel storage bins, i.e., the elevator had a working house containing the elevating machinery, while the storage was in bins connected with the working house by conveyors. In that form of elevator, the working house is usually rectangular in shape, with square or circular bins; while the independent storage bins are usually circular.

The Electric also documents the advantages electricity brought to grain elevator construction. Both the Electric and the Great Northern were built to use electric power, eliminating steam boilers, engines, chimneys, numerous workers, and the necessity of bringing fuel to the elevator or mill site. The paraphernalia of steam power had occupied separate rooms and considerable space. Only one or two large electric motors were needed to supply power for the operation of an elevator. Electrical power introduced a new freedom in the placement of the legs in relation to the bins. A greater number of legs now could simultaneously service the same number of bins and/or boats. These mechanical developments made much bigger elevator complexes possible. The Electric saw the addition of many additional bins tripling capacity in the middle of the Second World War and is an early example of the Chase System of linear transfer from conveyor to bin to bin to bin.

Concrete Elevators: After 1900, there was a decisive shift to concrete construction, not unlike the shift to concrete in factory building at the same time. There was growing concern that unbraced cylinders of thin gauges of steel plate were less inherently rigid than had been supposed. At least two of the bins of the Electric Elevator had distorted slightly, and more extensive damage was prevented only by the stiffening of the domed tops that converted them.

At the end of the 1890's, two means for more rigid fireproof construction came from Minneapolis: the tile bin and the reinforced concrete bin.

Tile Bin: The tile bin was short lived but conceptually important. Bins were made of tile construction reinforced with steel, a technology that came from the tile-built, steel-rod-reinforced floors and internal partitions used in big cities like Chicago at that time. The dominant system for tile bins was patented in 1895 by the Barnett-Record (Johnson-Record) Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the system was proven in 1899 when a single experimental tank was built and evaluated in Minneapolis.

The first phase of Buffalo's Washburn-Crosby (now General Mills) Elevator consists of a set of nine Johnson-Record tile bins. They date from 1903 and were attached to a six-story, brick pier milling building, designed by Buffalo's Reidpath office.

Buffalo's Plympton Elevator stood from 1869 until 1902 and was a brick ancestor of the final tile system. Ernest V. Johnson (the Johnson of the John- son Record system and son of George H. Johnson, the pioneer of fireproof elevator construction) constructed the iron and brick elevator in Buffalo. Special interlocking bricks were used with no exterior walling with successful protection against the exterior climate.

Banham described the technology:

The basic technology of the system proven by the test bin built in 1899 was by modern standards a hybird, consisting of a circular wall laid up of two leaves of special square tile. The inner and outer leaves were grouted together without a cavity, and the tensional loads were taken up by hoops of two-inch steel strap between the leaves.

Although this system proved entirely satisfactory, to judge from observations made three years later, it was substantially simplified in the improved version commonly employed thereafter. The latter used a single-leaf structural wall made of alternating
courses of short and tall tiles; the short ones were hollow troughs into which the steel reinforcing rings were laid and then grouted down solid.

Early versions of the simplified system apparently had a layer of glazed tiles lining the inner face of the wall to protect the grain or to prevent it from catching during discharge, but this was deemed unnecessary and these "furring" tiles were transferred to the outer face of the wall to protect the main structure against damage by external fire and weather.

For a short period - barely a decade - the developed Johnson system must have been highly acceptable to the trade, for a very large number were built and still stand in their naturally handsome brown-to-purple, salt-glazed color range, a familiar part of the urban scenery of the elevator districts of cities from the Midwest up into Canada and across to the East Coast.
(Reyner Banham, "A Concrete Atlantis," p. 134)


Brick circular storage bins: Brick circular storage bins are constructed similarly to the tile construction described above. The bin wall is typically a three-course wall, the two inner courses being laid solid, a space of 3" being left between the two inner courses and the outer course, making a wall of 16" thick. The outer course is bonded to the two inner courses by wire bonds, passing through the air space. A channel is formed every 12" in height in the inner wall by splitting a course of brick, making the channel about 2 1/2" wide and a brick high, and a brick from the inner surface. The steel reinforcement is placed in this channel and is cemented as in the construction of tile bins. The Kellogg survives in Buffalo, a brick and wood elevator, with later concrete bins.

Peavey's Folly Concrete Bin: Concrete was to become the industry standard. The first experiment in concrete was a cylindrical, reinforced concrete bin known as Peavey's Folly built in 1899 in Minneapolis in 1899, now having National Landmark status. The project was designed by Minneapolis architect Charles F. Haglin for Frank H. Peavey, a large-scale international dealer in grain.

Construction was enabled with climbing formwork that was raised as each section of concrete set. The walls were 12" thick, reinforced by strap hoops similar to those used by Johnson and Record in their experimental tile bin of the same year. Peavey's Folly was 20' in diameter at the base and 68' high but later raised to 125' comparable to the largest concrete bins that later went into general service.

After six months, Haglin supervised the discharge of grain from the bin. Skeptics expected the
structure to implode - it did not - and the grain was reported to be in good condition. Peavey's company had already begun construction of the first full sized elevator with cylindrical concrete bins. Within three years two failures occurred: the first due to faulty design; the second due to settlement of the foundations and to the use of dirty aggregate.

Buffalo's Washburn-Crosby (now General Mills) Elevator near Michigan Street illustrates this swift transition in building technology. The complex began as a set of nine Johnson-Record system tile bins, beside the ship canal and under the Skyway overpass. The tile elevators date from 1903 and were attached to and served a six-story brick pier milling building. The mill building was designed by R.J. Reidpath and son, the towers by the company of Bateman and Johnson, both
in 1903.

A second set of bins was added in 1906, already in concrete, and a third set of concrete bins added in 1906. A new leg was added and with it a new horizontal transfer system running across all three sets of bins.

The Washburn-Crosby was also one of the first elevators to successfully employ interstitials, that is, to fill the spaces between the cylindrical bins with concrete quarter cylinders holding grain and giving the sense that the original bins are connected - an innovation that further maximized use of space.

Other Buffalo Elevators: Additional Buffalo elevators continued to show options in organization, plan, section, construction, and machinery. The Perot Elevator in Buffalo had octagonal basements that extended above ground level (as did the third phase of the Washburn-Crosby). These were designed by A.E. Baxter who gave his preferred raised basement treatment to a number of elevators in Buffalo.

The first phase of the Standard Elevator (1928) and the gigantic Concrete Central Elevator (1915-17) exhibit this raised basement form. The set of bins at the Concrete Central are raised one story from wharf level giving a huge head clearance in the mill house. Baxter's methods were abandoned for high cost.

Another solution is found in the Marine A Elevator (1925) where the bins were put on a foundation six feet below level and pierced the foundations at the base to allow the conveyors to pass through. Of course, this necessitated thickening of the foundation walls, although it did provide an underground workspace.

Buffalo's grain elevators are a rare and unique complex of transitional industrial buildings.
The Great Northern, now a part of the Pillsbury Mills, and the Electric, the first to be powered by electricity, are two historically important intermediate elevators with steel bins. The Washburn-Crosby, now General Mills, close to the Skyway, and Concrete Central, now abandoned and inaccessible, are two survivors of the earliest concrete type.

Worldwide Attention: The concrete elevators of Buffalo were frequently illustrated in European publications and were influential in shaping European modern architecture. Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, leading theoretician of modern architecture, and proponent of functionalism, knew these photographs, as did Le Corbusier. Erich Mendelsohn was the first of many architects to come to Buffalo to see the elevators for himself.

Decline: Today Buffalo's grain trade is but a fraction of what it had been. Many elevators have been demolished; many more are under-utilized.

In the 1920's, grain receipts exceeded 300,000,000 bushels a year. World War II plus the demand in western Europe in the post-war years continued to stimulate the grain trade. The 1940's saw several years when grain received at Buffalo elevators and mills approached or exceeded the 300,000,000 bushel level.

Steady decline followed and elevator storage capacity has declined from a high point of 58,400,000 bushels in 1942 to a low point of 22,650,000 bushels.

The reasons for this decline include the opening of the Welland Ship Canal in 1932, which enabled lakers to bypass Buffalo thereby ending the shipment of Canadian grain from Buffalo; and the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1952 which provided ocean vessels a route to and from the midwest across the Great Lakes. This ended Buffalo's grain transshipment business completely.

The animal feed industry in Buffalo was also declining as decentralization occurred between 1955 and 1970.

Today Buffalo remains prominent only in the milling of grain into flour, a prominence that is also threatened by new developments in transportation and business organization.


Photos and their arrangement 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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