Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mark Sommer reviews my book

“American Colossus: The Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1943,” is a provocative, thought-provoking and informative must-read for grain elevator aficionados.

Most Buffalonians today know these hulking structures as largely dilapidated ruins, detached from the critical role they once played in bringing prosperity to Buffalo, the city of their invention in 1843.

The book—so named by author William J. Brown for the elevators’ towering bulk and unapproachable facade —examines them and their forgotten role in developing Buffalo and the nation over a 100-year period.

Brown became interested in writing “American Colossus” while pursuing master’s and doctorate degrees in American literature at the University at Buffalo in the 1980s. The freewheeling book—exhaustively researched and amply footnoted, but weak in the proofreading department—doesn’t hesitate to add an unlikely array of voices to Brown’s ruminations, from Zane Grey and Karl Marx to Thomas Hobbes and William Shakespeare.

The author acknowledges a debt to the late architecture critic Reyner Banham, and repeatedly refers to “A Concrete Atlantis,” his landmark 1986 book on grain elevators. But Brown is sure to ruffle feathers by bludgeoning the revered former chair of UB’s School of Architecture for errors in scholarship.

Brown frequently cites and sometimes spars with Banham’s work while examining how the grain elevator came to be embraced by European Modernists and influence the Bauhaus style of art and architecture.

“American Colossus” is available at the Buffalo& Erie County Historical Society. It includes an appendix that lists some 122 grain elevators once in Buffalo, of which only about 15 remain. —Mark Sommer

Buffalo News, 20 December 2009.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

R. Alan Wight reviews my book

American Colossus represents a unique weave of important, but often unconnected threads of American Imperialism. From waterways and railroad monopolies to oil conglomerates and Cargill, Brown discusses the evolution of the modern American grain transportation and storage system. His poetic narrative illustrates how the American Colossus (the grain trade) is used as an economic force to export the American diet and culture, along with our particular form of hegemonic capitalism. This project on the grain “system” of market dumping and local farmer destabilization that threatens our planets ecological stability goes hand in hand with the work of prominent authors such as Dr, Vandana Shiva, Michael Pollen, and Bill McKibben.

Brown walks the reader through the history of the grain elevator. He poses important questions about the classification of these hybrid “building-machines,” traces the many architectural and industrial innovations brought together to “fire proof the tinderbox,” compares and contrasts the architectural and systematic differences of America to Europe, and does this all by neatly structruing his arguments on the shoulders of such renowned historians as R. Banham and W. Cronon. Also, Brown challenges existing historical works for their accuracy regarding pictures and names of grain elevators.

In addition, this research uses poetry, cultural mythology, and religion, with a hint of autoethnographic material to relate the beginnings of our American Colossus to the reader. Brown’s voice can be heard loud and clear has he describes his first hand experiences exploring the now silent, hybrid building-machines of Buffalo, NY. From the huge grain elevators admits our concrete metropolises, to the skyscrapers of the plains, to the thousands upon thousands of local nodes spread across this vast continent; Brown uncovers one of the foundations of our Modern American Empire.

-- R. Alan Wight M.A., Sociologist, University of Cincinnati

Monday, October 26, 2009

Henry Baxter reviews my book

William J. Brown
Colossal Books

This book reviews one chapter in mankind's oldest industry, the processing and storage of grain, which extends at least back to 9500 BC.

The story is taken up in 1842 with the building of Dart's grain elevator which was the first storage and transfer grain elevator powered by a steam engine. This innovation reduced the number of workers by 80%, speeding up the process of transferring grain from lake boats to canal boats and so solving a serious congestion problem in the Port of Buffalo. This, combined with the Erie Canal, permitted rapid development of the Midwest and the Port of New York. The trade increased from 1,500,000 bushels in 1841 to 20,000,000 bushels in 1854.

By the standards of the day these elevators were huge, up to 200' long by over 100' high, with almost no windows or doors, and painted black resulting in an almost sinister look. In the words of English visitor Anthony Trollope, "The grain elevator is as ugly a monster as has yet been provided," an so we learn the source of "Colossus" in this book's title.

This book also considers the influence of Buffalo's grain elevator designs on European architecture. For instance German architect Walter Gropius visited Buffalo and was so impressed by the almost pure functionalism of Buffalo's elevator designs that he used the idea at his Bauhaus School of Architecture which produced designs of great simplicity and elegance.

The principal promoter of the idea that Buffalo’s elevator designs greatly influenced European architecture was Reyner Banham, Director of the School of Architecture at the University of Buffalo. Banham in his book “A Concrete Atlantis” compares the elevator designs to those of Richardson and Wright. Brown however is critical of “A Concrete Atlantis” due to its many factual errors.

A useful appendix lists every grain elevator ever built in Buffalo. 140 are included to which in fact a few more should be added. One of them, the Cargill (Urban Mill) elevator, consisted of 4 free standing steel bins serviced by bucket elevators and conveyors which were not in enclosures. So this elevator did not include a building. And you wonder what the German architects would think of how the purely functional approach which produced the buildings they so admired went a step further and eliminated the buildings themselves.

-- Henry Baxter

Western New York Heritage, Volume 12 Number 3, Fall 2009, p.18-19.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Availability through

American Colossus: the Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1943 is now available from Amazon.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Diet Soap interview

In March 2009, I was interviewed at length on the telephone by Doug Lain. This interview has just been "podcast" and can now be heard on the "Diet Soap" website. Doug also conducted an interview with me by email, which has been available here here since 18 March 2009.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Consolidated Grain & Barge Co. grain elevator in South Cumminsville, Ohio

Today Isaac took me to the grain elevator formerly operated by the Consolidated Grain & Barge Company in South Cumminsville (west part of Cincinnati). It was a remarkable experience and seems to have laid the groundwork for future collaborations between us.

In ruins since October 2008, when the "top" or northern section of the structure was demolished, this grain elevator (photographed from ground-level by Joe Wessels and from space by Google Maps' satellites) is quite an oddity: it stands in complete isolation. (For more photographs of the elevator before and during this stage of demolition, visit the Queen City Disco.)

As one can see, it was once a large facility, built in at least two stages, and probably capable of storing more than two million bushels of grain in bulk. The elevator is in fact so big that one might suspect that it was originally built to receive grain for a nearby flourmill, animal-feed mill or brewery that was subsequently demolished. Positioned along the banks of Mill Creek, the elevator was in fact built to transship grain from rail cars (farms in Indiana and Ohio) to barges (markets in St. Louis or News Orleans). But there are no barge-loading facilities (nor ruins of them) on the water-side of the elevator. Furthermore, on the elevator's other side (the one visible in Joe Wessel's photo), there is only a single track laid down by the old Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad. Such a massive elevator would normally service a train shed into which four or five train tracks or "spurs" would feed.

Not surprisingly, there is very little public information about the Consolidated elevator, which bears no corporate signs or logos upon it. Its address, 3180 Beekman Street, is no longer listed. (Try 3100 Beekman, instead.) In 2000, a photographer named Casey Walker wrote that "In the background, under the viaduct, [there] is a very big grain elevator. From closer I could see huge cracks in the concrete grain elevator; I heard that it had failed as soon as it was built and was never used." Never used? Impossible. The blue plastic (!) grain-bucket that I kept as a souvenir of today's visit still had grain in it. But this fellow was certainly responding to something that is really there: this particular grain elevator is remarkably isolated from its surroundings, a true island.

Based upon my preliminary research, it seems that the first section (now destroyed) was probably built as a rail-to-barge transshipping elevator in the 1920s or 1930s, used for a while, and then abandoned in the 1940s, when the Queensgate rail terminus was built on the other side of Mill Creek. Perhaps the second section was constructed in the early 1970s, right after the formation of the Consolidated Grain & Barge Company (known today as "CGB Enterprises"). The entire facility was abandoned in 1993, when CGB transferred its operations to a facility at 3164 Southside Avenue, which is on the Ohio River, and not a narrow, minor tributary to it. Despite being left out in the rain and snow to rot, the elevator's second section is still in remarkably good condition. Though someone has taken care to prevent access to anything that might serve as stairs to the top, the reinforced-concrete structure itself is as handsome and solid as ever.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Where to buy a copy

American Colossus still isn't available on Amazon, but I'm sure it will be by October of this year. In the meantime, you can still buy it through Lulu. The price will be the same ($29.99) in either case.

To date, 34 copies of the book have been sold. Two-thirds of them (22 copies) were purchased by Colossal Books (which re-sold 15 of them and gave 7 of them away to potential reviewers); and one-third (12 copies) were purchased by others through Lulu. To all those people who have bought a copy of American Colossus: thank you very much!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Adaptive Reuse: A Practical Proposal

On pages 401-404 of American Colossus, I discuss the various ways in which grain elevators that have recently been abandoned by their owners can be "adaptively reused," that is, not used as grain elevators or grain-storage warehouses, but as something else. As I've noted before, the most common way to adaptively reuse a grain elevator is to transform it into a home, a house or a hotel. Old grain elevators have also been transformed into in-door rock-climbing facilities, planetariums and museums about grain elevators.

But what about grain elevators that have been abandoned and become derelict, even dilapidated? These are buildings that can't be reused without first spending massive amounts of money to clean them out, fix whatever damage has occurred, re-wire them for electricity, etc. On the other hand, these are, generally speaking, large buildings made of reinforced concrete, which means they are expensive to demolish. But be demolished they must, that is, if the land upon which they stand is to be sold to a buyer who doesn't want to adaptively reuse an old building, but build a new one.

Such is the "stand-off" or state of paralysis one sees in Buffalo, New York. The waterfront area is full of long-abandoned elevators made out of reinforced concrete. As time goes by, they continue to rot, get vandalized, etc. Though there are many individuals, groups and institutions in Buffalo who are involved in the documentation, appreciation and lamentation of the passing of the city's grain elevators, few of them are able to come up with truly practical solutions to the problem of adaptively reusing ruined buildings.

(Not all of the elevators in Buffalo are in the dilapidated state that renders the Superior, the Concrete Central, the Great Northern and the Connecting Terminal difficult, if not impossible, to reclaim. But those that remain in or near operable condition are more likely to be sold to ethanol-producers than reused as houses or museums, for which there is much less market demand.)

When the city has proposed or agreed that one of Buffalo's abandoned and derelict elevators be destroyed -- in the hope or with the contractual provision that the buyer of the "cleaned" property builds something valuable to the community on it -- the "preservationists" have found themselves in an untenable position. They had have no workable proposals for what to do with the Eastern States, Meyer Malting, Kreiner Malting, and, last but not least, the H & O Oats, all of which have been demolished since 2000, but without being replaced with a "new" building of any kind. The worst of both worlds: no elevator, no new building, just a vacant lot no one wants.

The demolition the H & O Oats is the most recent and most painful example. Between 2005 and 2007, there were those who wanted to demolish this abandoned and derelict grain elevator in the name of building something that would hopefully provide jobs and attract tourists/money to the area (a casino); and there were those -- the "preservationists" -- who wanted to save the elevator because Buffalo is the city in which the grain elevator was invented and developed. Both sides had strong cases: title to the land, in the case of the former (the Seneca Nation of Indians), and a pattern of indifference and neglect on the part of the city in the protection of these buildings, in the case of the preservationists. And yet both sides also had weak cases: respectively speaking, the casino could be built in such a location on the property that the H & O Oats need not be demolished, and there was in fact little else to do with the elevator (or, rather, what remained of it in the aftermath of a devastating fire in 1987) other than demolish it. In the end, the elevator was demolished and the casino was not built due to lack of capital funds.

And so, here is my proposal: commission internationally-known artists to paint gigantic murals upon these abandoned elevators, make a movie of the process, and then hold an exhibition, perhaps in tandem with a July 4th fireworks display and a projection of the aforementioned movie upon an elevator that had been painted all-white for the occasion. The effect would be truly spectacular!

Of course, the murals chosen for -- temporary? permanent? -- display would have to be much better than the one in Midland, Ontario (see below).

Gary Friesen wrote a piece about this, "North America's largest outdoor mural," in the 14 April 2001 edition of The Globe and Mail.

Painted on the side of a century-old grain elevator, the mural depicts a Jesuit missionary and a Huron-Ouendat native overlooking Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, the Jesuit mission and the first permanent European community in Canada west of the Ottawa River. Built in 1639, Sainte-Marie was the headquarters of the Jesuits sent to preach among the Huron-Ouendat natives. In 1649, after years of deadly attacks by the invading Iroquois to the south, the remaining Jesuits and Huron-Ouendats burnt Sainte-Marie to the ground and eventually returned to New France (Quebec).

Visitors can easily see the mural from anywhere along the waterfront, although the pier to the far right offers the best face-on view. Binoculars and a lawn chair would allow the viewer to experience and really appreciate the extremely detailed workmanship by artist Fred Lenz. The weather dictates when work begins as the concrete walls must be totally dry for the special mural paints to properly adhere and maintain their vibrant colours. Visitors and residents delight in watching the progress through the warmer and drier months. The mural is scheduled to be completed in time for the dedication ceremonies during Midland's annual Waterfest Weekend in early August.

The gigantic waterfront mural is the crowning achievement of artist Fred Lenz's career and the highlight of Midland's outdoor historical mural project. Over 30 huge murals splash colour and local history throughout the downtown commercial core. Sponsored by the Midland Business Improvement Association, the mural project plays a major role in an overall downtown revitalization program. With a descriptive brochure and guide map, visitors can easily stroll through almost 400 years of local history. These brochures are available throughout the community. The exquisite craftsmanship will impress you as will your appreciation of Midland's rich and unique heritage.

This outdoor historical mural project is a great idea, and could easily be brought to a place like Buffalo, but this particular mural is just awful. "Extremely detailed workmanship"?! The left arm of the Huron-Ouendat, presumably gesturing to the settlement and not extending his hand in friendship to the missionary (whose hands are hidden), is clearly deformed. This is especially poignant, given that -- in 1930, almost 25 years before the preserved remains of two of the missionaries were discovered at the site -- the eight "Canadian Martyrs" of Sainte-Marie were canonized by the Pope. Inevitably, the canonization of these missionaries meant the demonization of their killers, who weren't simply Iroquois, but members of the Seneca Nation. I hope that I'm wrong, but I sincerely doubt that any of the murals sponsored by the Midland Business Improvement Association document the displacement and devastation of both the Hurons and the Senecas.

A really strong pro-Seneca mural would be perfect for Buffalo. Some old wounds have still not healed there. To recall the last few lines of an article published in The Buffalo News on 6 December 2005, in the midst of the battle over the H & O Oats elevator:

Several critics of the project said the Senecas were showing insensitivity by not including the public in its decisions.

John Laping, chairman of the Buffalo Preservation Board, regretted there has been none of the scrutiny or public input required in Buffalo. "It's too bad the Seneca Nation does not feel the same kind of civic responsibility," said Laping.

Richard Lippes, the attorney filing the lawsuit against the purchase of the DL&W site on the grounds that it violates state and federal law, agreed. He hopes the Senecas will reconsider its decision to destroy the H-O Oats complex.

"The Senecas, perhaps more than most, should understand the importance of our history and our environment, and respect these historic structures," Lippes said.

To state the obvious: the "insensitivity" here is among those who do not know or simply refuse to admit that hundreds of years before this "historic" elevator was built -- indeed, hundreds of years before the founding of Buffalo itself -- the Senecas lived on these precise tracts of land, and that thereupon they had their own "history" and "environment." They want some of that land back? They have every right to it: not you, not me. Put that on your mural.

(Note added 23 December 2011: see the Stored Potential Project in Omaha, Nebraska, which used abandoned grain elevators to display silo-length scrolls of art on a temporary basis.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

When to stay away

One of the major themes in my book is "the problem of properly positioning yourself with respect to a colossal building [...] Kant notes that 'We must keep from going very near the Pyramids just as much as we keep from going too far from them, in order to get the full emotional effect from their size.' [...] In Derrida's words, 'So one has to find a middle place, a correct distance for uniting the maximum of comprehension [aesthetic pleasure] with the maximum of apprehension [mathematical understanding]" (American Colossus,pages 335-336). To show that this positioning of oneself in the middle isn't simply a mental or psychological process -- more than a way of enjoying that which is disturbingly large -- but also a physical one, I quote the photographer Frank Gohlke (p. 337). As I have noted before, Gohlke claims:

For me, the essential grain elevator view is obtained through the windshield of a car or truck while traveling on a highway in Kansas or Oklahoma or the Texas Panhandle. It is not a static view, but one that begins just as the elevator becomes visible above the center line, above five miles out of town, and continues until it disappears in the vibration in the rearview mirror. In the minutes that pass as the speck grows to colossal size and then shrinks to rejoin the horizon, many contradictory messages are created: we are powerful, we build for centuries, our monuments rival those of other heroic ages; we are insignificant, our hold on this landscape is tenuous, nature and time erode our greatest creations as if they were dust. What lingers is the memory, though, is the image of a solitary, upright form in the middle distance of an endless plain.

I have had a hard time reconciling all this with the example/rhetoric of Reyner Banham, the author of A Concrete Atlantis: U.S. Industrial Building and European Architectural Modernism, 1900-1925 (MIT Press, 1986). In this pioneering work on the "Daylight" factories and grain elevators that were built out of reinforced concrete in Buffalo and elsewhere, Banham insists on the importance of moving in closer, getting out of the car and exploring such buildings oneself. "Although it is still possible, at some risk to life and limb, by climbing across railroad bridges and the like, to see Concrete Central from the other side [...] Closer views are not normally to be had, unless one goes up river to it or is prepared to undertake an adventurous and circuitous safari on foot [...] That journey is worth it, however" (Banham, pages 165-166).

Banham made sure his readers knew that, worth it or not, the "journey" would or could not be undertaken by anyone. Only the tough or courageous could or should do so. "My foot crashed through a rotten plywood cover that had been laid over an open culvert [...] Had I sustained an incapacitating injury, rather than mere scratches, in that fall, even those who knew approximately where I was would have no idea how to reach me, after they had finally decided that they had waited too long for my return" (Banham, p. 351).

My friend Orrin and I fancied ourselves to be just as tough and/or courageous as Reyner Banham was, and so, between 1989 and 1992, we not only asked for and were granted "official," guided tours of the Eastern States, the Perot, the Standard, and the Great Northern; we also took it upon ourselves to explore and even climb to the top of the Concrete-Central, the Superior, the Marine "A," and the GLF (all of which were abandoned and derelict). Those journeys were certainly "worth it."

But on page 405 of American Colossus, I humbly insist that "the most accurate description of our urban explorations in Buffalo would not be 'we risked life and limb,' but 'we knew when to stay away.'" I provide two examples, which I reproduce and illustrate below. In both cases, "staying away" meant "saying goodbye."

The picture above shows Meyer Malting, which was a small grain elevator built out of reinforced concrete by Monarch Engineering in 1914. Originally built to unload barley from vessels on the Erie Canal, which it faced, Meyer Malting was modified in the 1950s, when the canal was paved over and turned into railroad tracks and highways. By continuing to receive grain by truck, the malt house stayed in business until the late 1980s, when it was abandoned. Orrin and I got inside of it once. We only stayed a few minutes: the air was full of trapped car exhaust.

One day, we returned to Meyer Malting to take notes and photographs of what we'd seen the first time, but heard a noise from inside. If there had in fact been someone living inside it, or even simply visiting it, our presence might have been (mis)interpreted as invasive, hostile or unwanted. We knew from experience how difficult it was to get in and out of the building, and decided that it simply wasn't worth the risk. We left, never to return. In 2005, Meyer Malting was demolished by the City of Buffalo.

The picture above shows what remained after the fire of 1987, which destroyed most of the vast H & O Oats Milling complex in Buffalo, New York. Founded in 1893, H & O Oats built its first cereal mill on the site in 1914; it was designed by the A.E. Baxter Company. In 1931, the company added a set of grain tanks, which were made of reinforced concrete. The complex was closed in 1983 and temporarily used for the storage of tires. The fire of 1987 apparently destroyed grain tanks of all kinds: wood, steel and reinforced concrete.

When we visited the reamains of the H & O Oats in 1992, the basement looked to be permanently flooded. Someone had used a series of wooden planks to create a dry route to a staircase that presumably led to the upper levels. One of us remembered seeing a local TV news story about the rescue of a stray dog that had managed to get to the top of the 70-foot-tall structure, but couldn't get back down. We decided to stay away, and never returned. In 2006, the remains of the H & O Oats were demolished by the City of Buffalo to make way for a casino that was to be operated by the Seneca Nation. It hasn't been built.

Safe as houses: the Fallout Shelter in Kansas

It is most unfortunate that I didn't know this when I was writing American Colossus, because it fits so well into my extended discussion of dwelling in/on grain elevators.

In the 1960s, a certain grain elevator in Hutchinson, Kansas -- then known as the Far-Mar-Co Grain Elevator and today recognized as the biggest grain elevator in the world -- was equipped by the U.S. Army to serve as a fallout shelter, indeed, the biggest fallout shelter in the country, capable of housing an incredible 8,720 people (an entire town!). The photos above were taken by the US Army and placed on-line by the Civil Defense Museum.

Safe as houses: Hamburg, Germany, during the War

On page 403 of American Colossus, I mention my visit to the grain elevators (die Getreidespeichern) in Hamburg, Germany, in early 1994. I expected to see what I'd previously seen at the EuroSilo in Ghent, Belgium, and throughout the French countryside: grain elevators built after World War II and in the classic American style of elevator design (rows of gleaming-white cylindrical tanks made out of reinforced concrete). Instead, I saw a long line of elevators that had been built in a variety of styles and using a variety of building materials. There were big windowless brick buildings with flat roofs; big brick buildings with windows and pitched roofs; big windowless towers painted white; some unpainted reinforced-concrete silos; and several buildings that looked like enormous houses. Curious, I asked someone who worked at the Getreideterminal Hamburg (GTH) and was told that the some of the elevators that looked like houses were deliberately disguised to look that way, during the war, so that they wouldn't be bombed. Evidently the ruse had worked.

Safe as houses: adaptive reuse in Baltimore, Maryland

"The finest of these Florentine palaces are, I imagine, the tallest habitations in Europe that are frankly and amply habitations--not mere shafts for machinery of the American grain-elevator pattern." -- Henry James, Italian Hours (1909).

On pages 401-404 of American Colossus, I note that the most common way to adaptively reuse an abandoned grain elevator -- that is, one that has been "reclaimed" soon after it has been abandoned and hasn't experienced any significant damage in the interim -- is to convert it into a house or a hotel. This has been done, and quite successfully, in Akron, Ohio, where a Quaker Oats Elevator & Mill was transformed into a hotel in 1980; in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the Cereal Grading Company's elevator and warehouse was made into a condominium complex called Calhoun-Isles in 1982; and in Baltimore, Maryland, where the Baltimore & Ohio Grain Terminal -- note the horizontal gantries, which were typical of elevators that loaded ocean-going grain tankers (see picture above) -- was turned into SiloPoint in 2007 (see picture below).

Similar projects have recently been undertaken in Philadelphia (condominiums called "the Granary"), Minneapolis (low-income housing at "Van Cleve Court Apartments East") and Harburg, Germany.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Eastern States Elevator

On pages 395-396 of American Colossus, I evoke the fear I experienced when I first visited the Eastern States Farmers' Exchange Feed Mill & Grain Elevator on Military Road in Tonawanda, New York. (Tonawanda is just north of Buffalo.) Located "out in the suburbs" and alongside a set of railroads tracks -- not next to a canal, river or lake -- the Eastern States was designed and built by the A.E Baxter Engineering Company in 1934. During the mid-1940s, a second set of grain bins was added and a new flour mill was built; both structures were designed by A.E. Baxter and/or Henry Baxter, A.E.'s son. In the aftermath of changes made in the preferential railroad rates allowed by the federal government, the Eastern States -- like so many other grain elevators in Buffalo -- closed down in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Left abandoned and derelict, the Eastern States became the scene of accidental injuries, deaths and "animal sacrifices." It wasn't until the late 1980s that it was locked and sealed.

The pictures reproduced above were originally taken by the Historic American Engineering Record in the early 1990s. They capture the Eastern States from its southern side, which is the side of the elevator I first saw. Quite obviously, I was immediately struck by the great height of the elevating tower, which is almost twice the size of the bins adjacent to it. No elevator in Buffalo had a tower so tall. But what I found truly daunting about the idea of exploring this colossus was the large flour mill next to it (on the right in both pictures). Not only was this building full of broken windows, empty spaces, echoing sounds, birds, foul/fowl smells and cold, dank air, but it was also positioned such that it completely blocked the grain elevator -- and whatever was taking place in or around it -- from being seen from Military Road. I got the fear and left.

When I returned, several months later and in the company of a local councilman, a photographer and Henry Baxter himself, I got to see inside the elevator's basement. One of the first things I saw was a graffito that proclaimed: FRANKENSTEIN LIVES HERE. Though there was something silly about this proclamation, it resonated with my own fears and other people's associations of grain elevators with monsters. And so, in the summer of 2001, when the Eastern States was demolished, but not replaced by anything, I found myself wondering: "Where is Frankenstein living now?"

Grain elevators in Brooklyn, New York

Though the elevator in Gowanus still stands, the vast majority of the grain elevators built in Brooklyn, New York, over the years were not built on or near the Gowanus Canal, which was dug at the end of the 1860s. Instead, as the map reproduced above shows (circa 1880), most of the stationary elevators and grain warehouses in Brooklyn were built close to Manhattan: either in Brooklyn Heights, which is on the East River facing Manhattan's Lower East Side, or in the Atlantic Basin, which is along Buttermilk Channel. When necessary, grain facilities were also built in the Erie Basin (at the tip of or within the huge J-shaped breakwater).

By contrast, the Gowanus Elevator is far from Manhattan. Located in Upper New York Bay, it can't be seen in the map above. If it did appear, it would be in the upper-right-hand corner. To get a sense of the distances involved here, but without getting lost, see the map below. The green arrow is pointing towards the location of the Gowanus Elevator.

To complete our panorama, below is a picture of the Gowanus Elevator, as seen from the Red Hook Playground and photographed by the Historic American Engineering Record in 1985.

The Grain Elevator in Gowanus, Brooklyn

On pages 380-384 of American Colossus, I mention that, in an attempt to stimulate grain shipments on the recently completed New York State Barge Canal System, the Port Authority of New York built two large grain elevators: a lake-to-barge transshipping elevator in Oswego, New York (a port city on Lake Ontario), and a barge-to-tanker transshipper in Gowanus, Brooklyn. For a variety of reasons, the elevator in Brooklyn was designed and built by State of New York engineers and was completed first, in 1922, while the one in Oswego was designed by the James Stewart Engineering Company and finished in 1925. Both elevators were abandoned and left derelict in 1965. Though it was partly demolished in 1987, the elevator in Gowanus still stands, while the one in Oswego was completely demolished in 1999.

Above is a photograph of the Gowanus Elevator that was published in the Supplement to the Annual Report of the State Engineer and Surveyor for the Year Ended June 30, 1921. It shows a facility that looks like it was inspired by elevator design in Montreal, Portland or Baltimore, where there must be sufficient room (and machinery) for ocean-going vessels to be loaded with grain. At the Gowanus Elevator, two elevated horizontal gantries and a transfer tower combined to bring grain a total of 1,221 feet away from the main house, which faced away from Gowanus Bay and towards a short slip in which the barges were unloaded of their cargoes.

The photograph above shows the Gowanus Elevator as it appears today. Note that all three of its marine towers are made of solid reinforced-concrete. At the grain elevator in Oswego, by contrast, both of the marine towers were made of steel and iron, and were "loose legs," that is, capable of being moved.

In 1990, the Chicago Tribune reported that:

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) in its monthly magazine reports that The Eggers Group in New York, after completing an inventory for state officials of the 7,500 jail cells in the state, advanced the idea of transforming a 1.8-million-cubic-foot grain elevator in Brooklyn into a 1,000-cell jail. 
The concept would create small blocks of semicircular cells within the elevator, cells that could be monitored from central control points. The architectural firm points out that the silos, made of 6-inch thick concrete, are exceptionally secure. 
``It`s a pity that so many of these monumental buildings, often built with the solid construction techniques of the 1920s and 1930s, should be unused, particularly when they have such excellent potential to help relieve prisons that are bursting at the seams,`` Eggers` partner, Robert Kleid, told ULI. 
Kleid noted that cities such as Minneapolis, Buffalo, Albany, N.Y., Philadelphia, St. Louis, New Orleans, Duluth, Toledo and Houston, have vacant grain elevators ranging from 500,000 to 4 million cubic feet.

Fortunately this plan was never realized.

Margaret Bourke-White

On pages 367-368 of American Colossus, I discuss Say, Is This the USA, a collaboration between the photographer Margaret Bourke-White and the writer Erskine Caldwell. I call upon this remarkable book, which was first published in 1941, to show that grain elevators aren't simply symbols of wealth and abundance, but also symbols of misery, poverty and hunger amidst and despite abundance. "This America is a jungle of men living in the extremes of good and bad, heat and cold, wealth and poverty. . . . All these people, all this abundance, all these things, is this America we live in; but none of us knows what to do about it."

"In the midst of grain elevators bulging with food, man dies of hunger; and supplied with whirring looms, he goes without adequate covering against the icy blasts of winter; and surrounded by the products of the best minds of three thousand years, he is so poorly educated that he cannot explain the simplest natural phenomena." (The Salaried Man: The Story, in Two Episodes, of an Every-Day Person, Rand School of Social Science, 1920).

Unfortunately for admirers of Ms. Bourke-White's photographs, one of them (see above) has been mistitled "Smoke Stacks, Great Lakes region, Michigan, 1930." This famous photograph might well have been taken in the "Great Lakes region" in 1930, but it certainly shows grain silos, not smokestacks. Except for Detroit, no port-city in Michigan has ever been known for its grain elevators. It is far more likely that this photograph was taken in Minnesota or another state on the Great Plains.

The Dart Elevator, continued

On page 354 of American Colossus, I mention the plaque that was erected by the Industrial Heritage Committee and the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society in 1990 to commemorate the building of the Dart Elevator, the world's first mechanized (steam-powered) grain elevator. An entry on Waymarking displays this plaque's precise location, which is indeed on the very spot upon which the Dart and, later, the Bennett elevators stood. Note well that, in the intervening years (between 1842 and 1900), the Evans Slip was filled in, paved and called Erie Street.

Welcomed though it is, this plaque is open to nitpicking. It is true that work on the Dart began in the autumn of 1842; but the elevator wasn't ready to unload its first ship until June 1843. Furthermore, while it is true that the basic principles of the Dart "are still used in elevators along Buffalo's waterfront," these basic principles are also still used in elevators all over the world.

The Frontier Elevator, continued

On pages 305-307 of American Colossus, I discuss the second marine tower that the James Stewart Engineering Company designed and built for Washburn-Crosby, the flour milling company that owned and operated the Frontier Elevator. Made out of reinforced concrete in 1912, the new Frontier Elevator was photographed (see above) by the German modernist architect Erich Mendelsohn during a trip to Buffalo in 1924. This second marine tower was accompanied by a new set of grain bins made of reinforced concrete; yet another set would be added in 1925.

In stark contrast to the first marine tower (on the right), the second one (on the left) is shaped like a silo, not like a marine tower, that is to say, it is cylindrically, not rectangularly shaped. The statement is clear; it is a statement of mastery. With the advent of the new building material (reinforced concrete), grain-elevator designers need not be constrained by (certain) past practices, and can create new ones. In this particular case, a marine tower doesn't have to "look like" a marine tower, but can look like a grain tank. In general, form can -- but need not always -- "follow" function. Form and function can also pursue (slightly) different paths.

And yet none of this was apparent to Erich Mendelsohn, who claimed that his photograph caught "Childhood forms, clumsy, full of primeval power, dedicated to purely practical needs" (Amerika). What could Mendelsohn have said if someone told him that the cylindrical marine tower of the Frontier Elevator was in fact an instance of form following aesthetics, not "function" or "purely practical needs"? How could he, as an artist, admit that he had failed to recognize a work of art (a deliberate, sophisticated and witty attempt to make a pun on visual resemblances)?

Above: David Plowden captures the Frontier Elevator (aka known as "the General Mills Elevator") in action in 1985.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Frontier Elevator

On pages 294-295 and 305 of American Colossus, I allude to but do not directly discuss the Frontier, a large wood-binned elevator that was built in Buffalo (on the south side of Kelley Island) in 1886. As we can see from the postcard reproduced above, the Frontier (on our right) stood next to the steel-binned the Dakota Elevator (on the left) and utilized a single stationary marine tower. In the picture reproduced below, we can see that this marine tower was attached to a very long and tall warehouse that was also made out of wood.

It seems from this second photograph that the Frontier Elevator (on the left) communicated with other structures in the area through a long, horizontal conveyor-belt system. (Behind this conveyor, in the very middle of the photo, we see the Marine Elevator.) On the right, we can see the nine bins made of hollowed-out tile that the Barnett-Record Company built for the Washburn-Crosby Company in 1903.

By 1909, this area looked entirely different. The Frontier had been demolished. Its wooden marine tower was replaced by one made out of steel and corrugated iron; and its wooden-bins had been replaced by bins made out of reinforced concrete.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Tile-binned grain elevators, 1901-1910

On pages 219-220 of American Colossus, I mention the fact that grain-elevator designers, in an attempt to make their buildings "fireproof," experimented with using hollow tile (as well as steel and reinforced concrete) as the material out of which the grain bins were constructed. Above: the Red Tile Elevator in Minneapolis; photo by the Historic America Engineering Record.

Here is a list of pioneering tile-binned elevators built between 1901 and 1910:

-- the Great Eastern, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1901

-- name unknown, designed by Barnett-Record for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Port Arthur, Canada, 1902

-- the Saint Anthony #3, designed by Barnett-Record for the Washburn-Crosby Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1901-1903

-- the Frontier, aka the Washburn-Crosby, designed by Barnett-Record for the Washburn-Crosby Company, Buffalo, New York, 1903

-- name unknown, designed by G. Luther (Braunschweig, Germany), Bunge y Born Company, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1904

-- the Peavey, designed by Barnett-Record for Frank Peavey, Duluth, Minnesota, 1907

-- the Pillsbury "A" (also known as the Red Tile Elevator), designed by Barnett-Record for the Pillsbury Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1909-1910

Where not to buy a copy

Edwin Mellen Press claims that, come 31 July 2009, it will publish a book by William J. Brown entitled History of the Grain Elevators of Buffalo, New York. This claim that has led and a distributor in Taiwan to believe that it will carry the title -- though it is "not yet printed" -- "as soon as it arrives."

Please be informed that this title will never be published by Edwin Mellen Press, nor will it be distributed by or Anyone who has placed an advance order for this book through any of these companies should demand a refund of their one-hundred-plus dollars (!) immediately.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Grand Trunk

On page 216 of American Colossus, I mention that a pioneering, steel-binned grain elevator was built in Portland, Maine, by the Grand Trunk Railroad in 1902. Above, we see two views of Elevator #2, which was a very large building (175 feet high, 300 feet long, and 200 feet wide) intended to supplement Elevator #1, which was slightly smaller and built out of wood in 1896. Elevator #1 was demolished in 1943, while Elevator #2 was taken down in 1974.

The Electric Steel

On page 217 of American Colossus, I mention the Electric Steel, a pioneering steel-binned grain elevator built in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was designed by Lewis S. Gillette and built in two stages by the American Bridge Company (1901) and the Minneapolis Steel & Machine Construction Company (1903). As the photographs above show, the Electric Steel utilized a workhouse that stood apart from the 12 grain tanks, which were lined up in a two rows leading straight back from it, so that if a fire or explosion took place, it would not travel easily through the entire complex.

In later years, the Electric Steel Elevator would become part of the Russell Miller Flour Mill, to which it was connected by horizontal gantries that traveled high above ground (see picture above). Today, the elevator still stands and is in use.

The Pioneer Steel

On pages 216-217 of American Colossus, I mention the Pioneer Steel, a pioneering steel-binned grain elevator built in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Designed by the Gillette-Herzog Company and constructed by the Barnett-Record Company in 1901, the Pioneer Steel was owned by the local grain merchant George Frank Piper. In the photograph above, which was taken in 1995 by Jet Lowe of the Historic American Engineering Record, see can see that the elevator possessed a total of 22 freestanding, unenclosed tanks, arrayed in two rows. A conveyor-belt installed in a narrow horizontal gantry was laid on top of the main row of bins. The Pioneer Steel was demolished in 1995.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Dakota

On page 215 of American Colossus and in the caption for Figure 2, I mention the Dakota, a steel-binned grain elevator built in Buffalo in 1901. As we can see from the pictures above, the Dakota was erected next to the Great Eastern Elevator (to the left), another steel-binned elevator built in 1901, and the Frontier Elevator (on the right), an elevator with bins made of reinforced concrete, built in the 1920s. Directly in front of the Dakota stands the land upon which the historic Watson Elevator used to stand.

Designed by Ballou & Shirley and built by the Eagle Iron Works, the Dakota was clearly an experiment, half-bold and half-tentative. It could only store 1.25 million bushels, utilized rectangular grain tanks, and enclosed these bins in a tall and narrow rectangular warehouse made of steel. The gallery above the tanks was itself two stories high and surmounted by a large clerestory, which gave the entire structure a distinctive "hammer-head" silhouette. Both of the Dakota's marine towers were automotive ("loose"). The entire complex was razed in the mid-1960s, during the construction of an elevated highway.

In the same way that the Great Eastern was built upon a foundation made of reinforced concrete and intended to replace a wood-binned elevator that had been destroyed by a grain-dust explosion, the Dakota was built (by the Lehigh Railroad) to replace a wood-binned elevator of the same name (see below) that was built in 1887, could store 1 millions bushels and was brought down by a grain-dust explosion in 1901.

The Great Eastern

On page 213 of American Colossus, I mention the pioneering steel-binned Great Eastern Elevator, built in Buffalo in 1901. Designed by Harry R. Wait and built by the Steel Storage and Elevator Construction Company, with assistance by the Indiana Bridge Company, which was based in Muncie, Indiana, the Great Eastern could store 2.5 million bushels in its sixty-eight different steel tanks, which were freestanding, unenclosed and built in a variety of sizes upon a rhomboidal plot that was situated on the side south of the Buffalo River. The elevator was demolished in 1948.

In the picture above, which was taken in the 1920s or 1930s, we can see (moving from right to left) the some of the Great Eastern's many steel tanks; the Great Eastern's marine towers (both of which were "loose" and connected to the grain tanks behind them through a series of horizontal belts installed high above ground-level); the wood-binned and soon-to-be-demolished version of the Marine Elevator; and the reinforced-concrete grain tanks of the Kellogg Elevator, built in 1912.

The Great Eastern was built upon a raised foundation made of reinforced concrete, which was strong enough to support the combined weight of the steel-tanks themselves and the grain stored within them (see picture above). It was originally built to replace the Eastern Elevator (see picture below), which was built in 1895 with two marine towers (one of which was "loose") and the site of a terrible grain-dust explosion in 1899.

Note that, at roughly the same time that the Great Eastern was built in Buffalo, a Great Eastern Elevator was built in Minneapolis, Minnesota (see picture below). No doubt the large amount of space left between the workhouse in the center and the grain tanks -- made out of tile -- was intended to minimize the possibilities of fires or explosions traveling between them. It appears that the horizontal conveyor-belt that serviced these tanks was installed through the tops of these tanks, not cleanly above or on top of them.

The Electric Elevator

On pages 209-213 of American Colossus, I discuss the Electric Elevator, a pioneering steel-binned grain elevator built in Buffalo, New York, in 1897 (the same year that the steel-binned Great Northern Elevator in Buffalo was built). Designed for the grain trader Edward W. Eames by W.S. Winn and built by his Steel Storage and Elevator Construction Company (based in Cornersfield, Indiana), the Electric was a truly revolutionary creation. Not only were its bins were made of steel, but they were also free-standing and unenclosed (unlike at the Great Northern, where the bins were enclosed in a brick house).

In the picture above, we see the Electric as it was between 1897 and 1912, when it was only equipped with seven grain-tanks made of steel and set down upon a foundation of reinforced concrete. Note well the rather self-conscious pun on visual resemblances between the elevator's two marine towers, one of which (the one on our right) is "stiff" or fixed in position, while the other (the one on our left) is "loose" and capable of movement along a short set of rail-tracks.

In the picture below, we see the Electric as it was after 1912, when another 12 tanks made of steel were constructed.

Except for the Electric's Annex, which was built out of reinforced concrete in 1942, the entire facility was demolished in 1984.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Grain elevators as colossal monsters

Grain elevators, unlike colossal figures, are not complete. Though they have metaphorical legs, boots, and heads, grain elevators also lack key parts, such as feet, hands, torsos, and hips. They are true mixtures or hybrids, occupying the point half-way between machine/buildings and human effigies. As a result, grain elevators both inspire awe in us and frighten us. They aren't, properly speaking, colossal figures; they are colossal monsters.

Perhaps the best example of this fantasy is an untitled engraving that the American illustrator Joseph Pennell made of a grain elevator in Hamburg, Germany, in 1914 (reproduced above; discussed on page 257 of American Colossus). Note well that Pennell's style, generally speaking, was more documentary that expressionistic. But here, the grain elevator -- perhaps a floater-- is a towering bottle-shaped block of darkness, equipped with four or five long arm-like appendages (canal spouts?) and several other, thinner stalks that extend above its head. The entire thing is surrounded by smoke, clouds and darkness. At its feet, there is a tiny craft, battered by dark waves. The overall effect is clearly intended to be frightening.

Grain elevators as colossal figures

I find I am not alone in referring to the American grain elevator as an American Colossus. According to Drake Hokanson, who mounted an exhibit of his grain-elevator photographs in Perry, Iowa, in February 2007, grain elevators are "American colossi -- giant human figures on the landscape like the huge Egyptian statues in the Nile Valley."

Note: the image above does not depict an Egyptian colossus, such as the Colossus of Memnon, but the Colossus of Rhodes. But it is the general idea that matters here, not the particulars. I might just as well have posted the painting called The Colossus (1808-1812), commonly but incorrectly attributed to Francisco de Goya (see below).

As I point out on pages 258-262 of American Colossus, the word "colossus" doesn't necessarily refer to something that is very big, but to something (an effigy) that stands upright. Colossi and other effigies, though sometimes crudely rendered, are always complete figures: they never lack limbs, torsos or heads. This is why representations of them --no matter how big they are -- are always comforting, not disturbing. They reflect back to us images of our own complete forms.

It is quite true that grain elevators stand upright, not only with respect to the flatness of the areas that surround them, but also upon "legs" (elevating mechanisms) and "boots" (the pits into which the "legs" reach). The anthropomorphism of grain-elevator jargon goes even further: one speaks of "loose" legs and "stiff" legs, "head houses" and even the shoulders of grain elevators. . . .

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Brobdingnagian-sized words

On page 237, in the context of my discussion of Charles Magnus' "Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y", I note that the illustrator has taken great pains to show that each elevator has the last name of its owner and the word "elevator" printed upon it "in Brobdingagian-sized words." My reference was not only to Jonathan Swift's satire Gulliver's Travels (1726), in which Gulliver visits the island of Brobdingag, which is populated by gigantic people who are 72 feet tall, but also to Frank Norris's novel The Pit (1903), in which the narrator proclaims that, "on all sides, blocking the horizon, red in color and designated by Brobdingagian letters, towered the hump-shouldered grain elevators [of Chicago]."

Norris' novel has come up once before, and it will (or, rather, should have) come up again, on page 258 of American Colossus, in which I mention several writers who anthropomorphicized grain elevators: Rudyard Kipling, who spoke of the "high-shouldered" elevators in Buffalo; Carl Sandburg, who referred to the "hunched shoulders" of grain elevators in the Midwest; and the anonymous author of "Ugly but Profitable: The Grain Elevators of Buffalo: Examples of Hideousness in Architecture" (1891), who claimed that Buffalo's elevators "rear their ungainly heads" above the skyline.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y.

I mention Charles Magnus' illustration, "Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y.," several times in American Colossus. The most important references occur on pages 235-236, in the context of a discussion of the (in)visibility of Buffalo's grain elevators to the city's residents, partisans, and boosters. Prior to 1860, in similar illustrations by J.W. Hill (1853) and J.H. Cohen (1859), grain elevators -- despite their number, great size, and unusual appearance -- were strangely absent from representations of the city in which they were invented, back in 1843.

Things began to change in the early 1860s, during the Civil War, when Buffalo's elevators became "newsworthy" as the result of being targeted by arsonists (commandos from the Confederacy, torches hired by the Western Elevating Association, or anti-American rebels from Canada). By 1863, when Magnus' "Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y." was published, the elevators were "suddenly" as visible as they should have been, that is to say, as they were all along.

If we "zoom" into certain sections of this remarkable image/map, which was originally photographed and placed on-line by Chuck LaChiusa, we can see many significant grain elevators.

In the detail provided below, we can see the Erie Basin (built in 1854) and the Exchange (1863) elevators.

Below, the Cutter & Austin (date unknown), the C.W. Evans (original 1847, rebuilt 1863) and the Reed (original 1847, rebuilt 1862). Note: a part of the Bennett (built 1863) appears at the middle left.

Below, the Watson (1863) and an unnamed transfer tower, possibly the Excelsior (1862).

Below, the Watson, the Excelsior(?), the Corn Dock (date unknown), and the Main St. (1848).

Below, the Sturges (1863) and the Marine (1848).

Below, in the foreground (south side of the Buffalo River): the Marine and two unnamed elevators, probably the Richmond (1863) and the Hazard (date unknown). In the middle (north side of the Buffalo River), moving from left to right: the Seymour & Wells (1855), the Wadsworth (1846), and the Sternberg "A" and "B" elevators (original 1847, rebuilt 1862).

Below, in the foreground (south side of the Buffalo River): the Evans (date unknown). In the middle (north side of the Buffalo River), moving from left to right: the Sternberg "A" and "B," and the City (original 1859, rebuilt 1863).