“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 www.amazon.comand 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.