Grain Elevators - Table of Contents

Buffalo's unusual claim to architectural fame

By Tim Tielman
Author of
Buffalo's Waterfront: A Guidebook

Grain elevators play a central role in the history of Buffalo. They are also seminal to the history of modern architecture. They can be seen up close on both the waterñon the June 30th and July 4th Historic Boat Tours, and the August 12th Ruins of Buffalo tour.

The grain industry, contrary to popular belief, did not explode into existence with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Although the theoretical cost of shipping a ton of Ohio grain to New York City fell from $100 to $10 or less, it took time for western lands to be brought into production.

Gradually, the flat, fertile land of the midwest yielded to the settler's ax and plow. Grain surpluses came quickly. Shipped east, they found incrementally larger markets. The marginal farms of the east, on wrinkled topography and poorer soils, either shifted to more specialized crops or went out of business entirely.

Buffalo was the choke point on the route of western grain to the east coast and beyond, for the simple reason that the ships used on the Great Lakes were too big for the Erie Canal. Lake ships had to unload in Buffalo, where smaller canal boats took on grain or flour (in 1835, almost 80% of foodstuffs received from Ohio was in the form of flour) and hauled it farther eastward.

Along the Buffalo wharves loose grain was scooped into baskets and hauled from lake boats onto the wharves by block and tackle. Sacks of grain, and barrels and casks of flour, were also laboriously removed by human muscle. With luck, the cargo could be transferred to a waiting canal boat immediately. Usually, however, the foodstuffs had to be stored in a warehouse for a time.

This system was tolerable for relatively small amounts of grain, but by the late 1830s, when Buffalo began receiving grain from Michigan and Illinois, it was clear that congestion on the docks and the sheer volume of grain would overwhelm the harbor's ability to handle it.

Pondering the problem, businessman Joseph Dart hit on the idea of adapting a system of belts and with attached buckets to scoop out the grain. Dart had seen such a system used to move grain around internally around the Ellicott grain mill in Maryland.

In the fall of 1842, Dart arranged a series of buckets 28 inches apart on a leather belt and mounted the belt on a contraption which could be pulled out of his warehouse and into the hold of a ship. The contraption came to be known as a marine leg.

Dart quickly refined the system until the buckets were 16 inches apart and his elevating system could handle 2,000 bushels an hourñan amount that formerly took a full gang of men, working in ideal weather, a full day to unload and store.

After 1846, when Dart expanded his elevatorña term now describing his grain warehouseñother businessmen followed. Seven elevators were built in two years. There was a lull until 1861, when four large elevators were built and the amount of grain going through Buffalo exploded, going from about 30 million bushels in 1860 to over 60 million in 1861.

The world had never seen anything like it. After that, Buffalo became famous for its grain trade and elevators. The ungainly wooden elevators became tourist attractions.

Ever increasing volumes of grain and almost ruinous insurance premiums on wooden elevators caused engineers to seek more durable and efficient methods of construction. This led, after 1900, to structures built of steel, tile, and reinforced concrete. The resulting elevators were monstrous in scale: huge, monolithic technological wonders.

The American engineer had clearly created something new. Progressive European architects took notice:

Thus we have the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent FIRST FRUITS of a new age. THE AMERICAN ENGINEERS OVERWHELM WITH THEIR CALCULATIONS OUR EXPIRING ARCHITECTURE. -- Le Corbusier, "Vers une Architecture 1923," quoted in Banham, "A Concrete Atlantis" 1986.

In Europe a small group of theorists was rebelling against the excesses of the Art Nouveau and the constraints of the Beaux-Arts. They had a slogan: Ornament is Crime (coined by Adolf Loos, who favored stripping all decorative accretions). What they didn't have was a universal solution to their "depraved" architecture.

They found it in the grain elevator, and Buffalo had a lot of themñalmost an avenue of "skyscrapers" along the Buffalo River. This was something new. Big. Progressive. Confidant. Rational. The technology of the engineers would liberate architecture, and, the architects thought, architecture could liberate society.

Engineers had produced what architects had not, could not: totally unselfconscious architecture. Having no pre-conceived notions of form, the forms the engineers did produce were true to the physical laws of nature, of the materials they worked with. These laws were the same everywhere, in Berlin as in Buffalo. Here was the seed of a universal, international style. The engineers, in their innocence, had reinvented architecture.

Walter Gropius, a German avant-garde architect and one of the founders of the Bauhaus school of architecture, collected photographs of American elevators, Buffalo's Washburn-Crosby and Dakota prominent among them, had them published in the "Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes" in 1913.

The pictures were a sensation. Erich Mendelsohn, of Berlin, was fired by the Gropius illustrations. He took to sketching grain elevator forms as early as 1914. So did the Italian futurist Antonio Sant'Elia. After World War I, Le Corbusier published some of the photographs in a series of magazine articles. In 1923 he published Vers une Architecture, probably the most influential book in the development of modern architecture. Again, the Dakota and Washburn-Crosby are featured.

In 1924 Mendelsohn made the pilgrimage to Buffalo, the now legendary home of the monolith monsters. He had to see these otherworldly constructions himself.

Mendelsohn went gaga. He wrote of the scene to his wife:

Mountainous silos, incredibly space-conscious, but creating space A random confusion amidst the chaos of loading and unloading corn ships, of railways and bridges, crane monsters with live gestures, hordes of silo cells in concrete, stone and glazed brick. Then suddenly a silo with administrative buildings, closed horizontal fronts against the stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred cylinders, and all this in the sharp evening light.

I took photographs like mad. Everything else so far now seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams. -- Mendelsohn, as quoted in Banham, 1986

The die was cast. Modernism had begun its march around the world.

See also: Great Northern Grain Elevator links
Photos and their arrangement © 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
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