Grain Elevator 18.08.11


The grain elevators of Canada and South America ... are almost as impressive in their monumental power as the buildings of ancient Egypt," wrote Walter Gropius in his 1913 essay The Development of Industrial Design. And when 14 years later Le Corbusier praised "American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent first-fruits of the new age", in Towards a New Architecture, he too reached for a comparison with Ancient Egypt. Both men knew the structures only from photographs, and it may not be too long before that's the only way anyone will be able to experience them.

Between 1890 and 1940 the busiest grain port in the world was Buffalo in upstate New York. With more than 100 working elevators – silos where grain could be stored until it was ready to be taken elsewhere – it was known as the "elevator capital" of America. Now only a handful remain, most of which face the ongoing threat of demolition. Most recently, this May, the owner of the complex that includes the 1909 Wheeler elevator (notable for its monitor roof and gable-roofed marine tower) was granted an emergency permit for demolition despite local attempts to save it.

It was in Buffalo in 1842 that the "marine leg" mechanism of the modern grain elevator was developed. This was a conveyer belt-bucket system that took the grain (once it had been loaded by workers, or "scoopers", from railcars or lakeside docking ships), and dropped it into storage bins. A year later, as the railroad reached the Erie Canal, local grain merchant Joseph Dart built the world's first working elevator, and by 1860 ten were in operation alongside the local waterways. The vertical belts of these early elevating legs were steam-powered, made of leather and canvas, and usually encased in a tower. This could be either "stiff" – that is, stationary – with ships or railroad cars drawing up alongside, or "mobile", in which case it was the tower that moved sideways.

The wooden storage bins were dangerous places due to the flammable nature of grain dust; they were hardly less so when lined with ceramic tiles or steel. The cylindrical concrete form of the elevator so loved by 20th-century modernists replaced square wooden or steel structures only at the turn of the century, when a Minnesotan grain merchant called Frank Peavey was looking for ways to minimise the risks of fires and maximise the volume the containers could hold. The Peavey-Haglin tower was built in reinforced concrete as an experiment, and put up in St Louis Park in summer 1899. Grain was poured in and left until the following spring when its condition was tested, the tower judged a success, and its form copied throughout North America. "Peavey's Folly", however, as the solitary tower came to be known, was never put to any commercial use.

The opening up of alternative shipping routes, the rise of road transport and the decentralisation of grain markets
eventually turned North American waterside grain elevators into empty shells. Despite the efforts of preservationists, few of the structures are on the National Register of Historic Places (although, ironically, the National Preservation Trust will be holding its 2011 conference in Buffalo). In the former elevator capital itself, the H-O Oats elevator was knocked down in 2006 to make way for an as-yet-unbuilt casino, while, just along the Buffalo River, Concrete Central elevator is a popular venue for paintballing. The critic Reyner Banham (who spent the late 1970s in Buffalo) described the grain elevator as the "Protestant work ethic monumentalised", but there is little agreement about what should happen to these monuments now that the work has gone.



Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record



Fatema Ahmed

quotes story

The vertical belts of these early elevating legs were steam-powered, made of leather and canvas, and usually encased in a tower

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