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.