Grain Elevators - Table of Contents
Attitude Is Everything: Cylinders
By Ramona Pando Whitaker
The approach to Buffalo along I-190 was the culmination of a cross-country trip upon my husband's and my return to America from several years in Egypt. All our belongings were packed in the rental truck one of us was driving. As the downtown buildings sprouted on the horizon, huge structures appeared to the right and left of the highway, and my mind instantly labeled them "ugly."
Many looked abandoned. "Why don't they tear those things down?" I thought. I was appalled at this introduction to my new home on that overcast August day. We had no place to live yet, couldn't we reconsider? Turn around? Impossible, I knew. My husband had taken an appointment with tenure at Buffalo State College; we were here for the long haul.
Four years later, a Buffalo River boat tour introduced us up close to those monoliths, Buffalo's grain elevators. How different they looked from our moving vantage point: graceful, symmetrical, innately elegant, despite rust and broken windows.
The tour was sponsored by Buffalo's Industrial Heritage Committee, who told us that the grain elevators were invented here in Buffalo by Joseph Dart. We learned how they inspired the great German Bauhaus architects in their design of the modern high-rise. In their original shape and intended use, Buffalo's grain elevators have been copied around the world. We heard how their creation contributed to Buffalo's position early in the 20th century as a bustling and prosperous inland port -- Queen City of the Great Lakes. Some still bristle with activity; others are unused; the most historic has from time to time been threatened with the wrecking ball.
With this new perspective, I was reminded of my initial reaction to the Great Pyramids at Giza along the Nile west of Cairo. Some of the most famous names in history have been awestruck by those giant tombs, labeling them a "wonder of the ancient world." Napoleon added them to his conquests, climbing the 481-foot bulk of the largest and carving a big letter N at the summit. Perhaps this was the behavior of a conqueror, but it struck me as more like that of a common tourist.
I, however, great arbiter of taste and style that I am, merely wondered what all the hoopla was about. Then I worried that I was the only person in the world ever to feel that way. Only later, when I saw firsthand the progression of pyramid building, from the six-layer Step Pyramid at Saqqara, to the Bent Pyramid with its altered angle of ascent to prevent collapse, to the piles of rubble that most of the other 100 or so pyramids in the western desert have crumbled into over the centuries, did I come to view the Big Three at Giza in a wholly different light, to appreciate the phenomenon of their construction, their significance in Egyptian life, their stories.
But what really clinched my change of attitude was the day a group of us from my husband's department at the American University in Cairo picnicked at the Archeology Center on grounds adjacent to the pyramids. Almost reverently, we roamed the dunes, inspected boulders up close, posed for photos, the famous tombs our backdrop, while the enigmatic Sphinx looked on. How privileged we felt: This fabled place was our playground for the day!
Oh, yes! I was impressed. This was not just the burial place of three ancient men. There was life here after all!
Buffalo's grain elevators along the river could also provide a rich learning ground as well as playground. They have stories to tell, too, of the men who toiled within and in ships alongside, of the glory days when they symbolized productivity and prosperity. Those stories could change Buffalo's collective mindset from sorrow and embarrassment at what has been lost to pride about what was. Such stories might put to rest once and for all the motto current from time to time and the inferiority it embodies: Buffalo, City of No Illusions.
Instead of tearing down or ignoring them, these icons of Buffalo's once industrial dynamism could be promoted as part of a welcoming Industrial Heritage Trail, linked to other heritage sites and to waterfront development.
Buffalonians and visitors might well be awestruck by them just as I was ultimately by the pyramids, when my eyes and ears became receptive. They might come to appreciate the grandeur of this city, the contributions of its laborers, as well as its industrialists. What's more, the monuments glorifying both don't have to be built! About 20 already exist, clustered proudly along the Buffalo River.
Think about it! Grain elevators and Pyramids. Cylinders and triangles. Now there's a nice geometry.
About the Author: Ramona Pando Whitaker is a 20-year Buffalo resident who moved to the city from California via Egypt. She has also traveled widely in the environs of Manchester, England, exploring industrial archaeology sites and museums -- working and nonworking -- created from the huge fortress-like mills and warehouses of the Industrial Revolution, as well as other types of adaptive reuse of industrial sites. She and her professor-husband Rik operate the Beau Fleuve Bed & Breakfast Inn in their historic house in Buffalo -- their own version of adaptive reuse. This piece, now slightly modified, was first aired on radio station WBFO in June 1997.
Copyright 1997, 2004