Saturday, May 16, 2009

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.

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