Silo City - Table of Contents
The Trouble With Owning a Grain Elevator
By Lynn Freehill-Maye
The New Yorker, July 31, 2016
One steel-gray afternoon in the late winter, I pulled into a snow-coated gravel parking lot along the frozen Buffalo River. Geese sat around, honking, on the ice. Looming above them was the reason for my visit: a complex of three disused grain elevators, [Silo City] each containing dozens of silos that towered as many as thirteen stories high. I took them in for a while, until a forest-green 1973 Oldsmobile convertible rumbled up beside me. It belonged to Rick Smith [photo], a local industrialist who had purchased the elevators, in 2006, almost by accident.
Smith had been looking to expand what he calls his “wrinkle tin” company, Rigidized Metals, and was scouting the parcel of land between the elevators and the fatory where he texturized metal products. He had hoped to get an easement but wound up buying the land instead. For a hundred and twenty thousand dollars, he got twelve acres, plus the massive silo complexes. While the factory expansion was under way, he began to consider what he could do with them. All but one had been designed for a very particular purpose: cleaning, drying, and storing as many as eleven million bushels of grain, for shipment on railways or down the Erie Canal. (The other turned grain into malt for brewing.) But, when agribusinesses found different routes for their goods, Buffalo’s elevators fell into disuse.
Smith often drives over from Rigidized Metals at the end of the workday to hang out with Jim Watkins [photo], a drinking buddy from nearby Swannie House, one of Buffalo’s oldest bars. Watkins lives in a converted maintenance shed in the midst of the three elevators, and works on the site. When he opened his door, I felt puffs of toasty air from a wood stove, which made the shed feel inviting. “You could call this our office,” he said. “Sometimes we get really creative when we’re in the shack drinking some beers.” Smith pulled a stool near the stove for me. He had the air of a Great Lakes cowboy, dressed in a long wool coat that was roughened up by a ten-gallon hat, denim vest, and boots. (“Buffalo was once the Wild, Wild West,” he said of the outfit. “It was frontier.”) Watkins had a grizzled gray beard and wore brown Carhartt coveralls. Smith unearthed a craft brew for me from among the Budweiser in Watkins’s crusted fridge, and the men began to tell me about their attempts to make use of the silos.
Smith is a legacy of Buffalo’s manufacturing glory days. His grandfather founded Rigidized Metals in order to texturize lightweight materials for Second World War aircraft—a business that Smith’s father, and then Smith, diversified, to produce patterned metal for commercial goods such as restroom-stall partitions. Watkins, for his part, once worked as a factory-process engineer.
Not surprisingly, the men’s first impulse was to convert the elevators into a factory, specifically to produce ethanol. Figuring that the complex could be adapted to corn storage and processing, Smith and three business partners sank more than three million dollars into the project, forty thousand of which went into buying a nearby fourth elevator. Ultimately, though, they concluded that a biofuel plant would be too costly. Smith grimaced as he recounted the plan. “That was not a pretty chapter of my life,” he said. They recouped some of their losses by selling one of the original three elevators [Lake and Rail Elevator], which they’d managed to refurbish, for two million dollars, to a Minnesota-based hedge-fund subsidiary that speculates on commodity prices. Then they went back to the drawing board.
Grain elevators are a stubborn target for urban renewal, because it’s so difficult to use them for anything but cleaning and storing grain. Ironically, this very functionality was once widely celebrated. “The Bauhaus architects considered them the epitome of form, function, and design,” Watkins explained, wryly. Indeed, Le Corbusier, in his 1923 Modernist manifesto “Towards a New Architecture,” called them “the magnificent first-fruits of the new age.” The painter Charles Demuth depicted them in a 1927 masterpiece, “My Egypt, [photo online in August 2016]” that likened their majesty to that of the pyramids. One of the complexes in Smith’s care is, in fact, an architectural and engineering landmark: American Elevator, the country’s first continuous-pour, slip-form grain elevator, which was built in 1906 for the American Malting Company. As David Tarbet, a former academic at suny Buffalo (and the son of an elevator worker), recounts in his book “Grain Dust Dreams,” industrialists had previously used wood, tile, and steel for grain storage. The 1906 construction was the first complex of silos to be built in the U.S. using a technique in which the concrete molds were raised without stopping.
Buffalo’s elevators were deserted gradually, accelerating in the nineteen-fifties, after the Welland Canal was deepened and the St. Lawrence Seaway was finished, allowing shipping traffic to bypass the city. Grain transport also shifted to the south in the second half of the twentieth century, leading elevators to be abandoned even along the St. Lawrence - in Thunder Bay, Toronto, Montreal. American Grain Elevator finally ceased its operations, in the late eighties, leaving the complex among the most impressive extant collection in any global city: thirteen complexes, hulking together along the river like an elephant herd. Two remain in heavy industrial use, one by ADM, for milling flour, and another by General Mills, for producing Cheerios.
Buffalo’s elevators stand near the city’s downtown, an area that hasn’t generally been targeted for redevelopment. Lynda Schneekloth, a landscape architect who has organized riverbank cleanups, described for me the waterfront’s appearance when she arrived in the city, in 1982. “It was like a sewer. No one wanted to be there - not even bloodworms,” she said. Then, in 2011, she and other preservationists were hosting a conference in Buffalo, and they asked Smith if they could rent the site for a cocktail party. At the event, Smith heard boundless enthusiasm about the silos from the historians. “A lot of the out-of-town guys said, ‘I’m coming back,’ ” he recalled. “That’s how you get the idea that it could work as a cultural attraction.”
A friend came up with the name Silo City, and soon Smith and Watkins were hosting their next event, a spring festival called Boom Days. Watkins became responsible for logistics, guiding planners on where to park food trucks, how to generate power, and how to hang art installations a hundred and twenty feet in the air. The site has now hosted photography classes, dance performances, theatre productions, bike parties, flea markets, music festivals, vertical tours, recording sessions, and even six weddings and a prom.
When I visited again, this summer, Smith and Watkins took me to the riverfront mezzanine area, where celebrations often take place. We trekked up some newly installed metal stairs to what once was a conveyor belt between elevators; it had become a platform from which to view performances along the riverfront. “This is one of those great man-made amphitheatres, like a Red Rocks,” Smith said, referring to the Colorado concert venue. “You’re surrounded by these canyon walls.” As we walked into the silo where indoor performances are held, Smith yowled like a territorial cat; the sound echoed for a full nine seconds - the room’s long reverb, combined with the silos’ savage grandeur, have made the site particularly well-suited to concerts and poetry readings. The poet Philip Metres has described it as “the gentle ghost-grain future rising out of the rude concrete brutalism of the past.”
In warmer months, Silo City averages ten tours [Explore Buffalo] and one or two special events per week. Nonprofits often use the site for free. For other purposes, like commercial shoots and music festivals, the cost can be as high as a few thousand dollars. Still, Smith conceded that he was still struggling to make full use of the silos, and that the events business hadn’t earned back his investment in the site - more than a million dollars since he gave up on the ethanol factory. Cities with elevators have tried some ambitious, even grandiose, redevelopments over the years, and Smith had opinions on most of them. In Akron, Ohio, a hotel company tried to turn a silo complex into a round, beige Quaker Square Inn. When that failed, both commercially - and, in Smith’s opinion, aesthetically; the addition of windows, he said, made the silos homely - the University of Akron decided to convert it into a college dorm. Marseilles, France, refashioned a grain elevator into an opera house - a striking idea, but impractical in Buffalo. And next year, Cape Town, South Africa, will become home to the Silo, a luxury hotel and contemporary-art museum, a concept that intrigues Smith, but remains unproven.
Many of the most successful projects have required large amounts of public or private money. For years, Buffalo didn’t have comparable capital to invest, but that has been changing, thanks in part to a billion-dollar pledge from the state to subsidize economic-development projects, like a massive SolarCity factory, which is expected to be the largest solar-panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere when it opens, in mid-2017. And, as in Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities, millennials are moving in, attracting private investment. Buffalo is now experiencing its biggest commercial-building boom in decades, and the elevators are being considered anew. Near Silo City, developers are building an entertainment center around another elevator complex [RiverWorks], with sports rinks, a restaurant and brewery, and a beer garden, drawing a sponsor whose logo is rolled onto the sides of the silos like wallpaper. Last fall, the city attracted state funding to project a light show on another complex [Connecting Terminal Grain Elevator], at a cost of three million dollars.
For the moment, Smith’s plans remain modest. Next spring, he hopes to open a tapas bar and gallery in an old office building at Silo City [Russell-Miller Milling Company Office Building], the first permanent facility on the site. When I asked him whether he would consider a higher-profile project - a hotel or a museum - he demurred. “We’ve been activating the site and showing that there is a great deal of interest,” he said. “If people want to invest, whether it’s a state government or anyone else, we’ll look at it.” American Elevator had gone up in a few months, I reminded him; figuring out what to do with it was taking exponentially longer. As he considered the timeline, Smith sat back and took another swig of beer. “I’ll never finish it,” he said. “I’m just trying to leave it better than I got it.”