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.