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August 2018

Emblematic Waterfront Elevator Complex Threatened; Wreckers on-site Prior to Preservation Board Hearing


The giant cement manufacturing and shipping complex that has marked the southern border of the Buffalo waterfront for almost a century is under dire threat of demolition. A wrecking company has set up shop on the site, installed signage, and a number of people were observed working on the site the morning of June 14—prior to a Preservation Board hearing to consider the demolition request. All such requests must be reviewed by the board to ensure that no significant structure "fall through the cracks" before a landmark designation or other measures can be taken to protect it, stemming from the infamous demolition of the Harbor Inn during the Masiello Administration.

Brown Administration Commissioner for Permits and Inspections James Comerford has regularly flouted the procedure, claiming he must issue permits unless the Preservation Board succeeds in designating a building a landmark within 30 days. It is constitutionally impossible to have proper notice for public hearings within that span, let alone conduct research and assemble documents. With this action out on the waterfront, the Brown Administration seems to have dropped even the pretense of public review to protect threatened structures. It is unimaginable that a company would hire and have on-site a wrecking team without a rock-solid assurance from city officials that the demolition permit is a certainty.

The complex of concrete storage elevators and associated structures, built as Great Lakes Cement beginning in 1926, is every bit as character-defining for Buffalo as the grain elevators of the Buffalo River. Located on the Union Ship Canal and the Outer Harbor, the complex is seen by tens of thousands of commuters every day, and additional thousands on fair-weather evenings and weekends throughout the year. It is a huge tract of land—55 acres—surrounded by water on three sides, with 4,000 feet of shoreline. The remaining structures on the site occupy a small footprint, but that may be too much, perhaps, for a company that sees  more value in selling a cleared and clean waterfront parcel.

The industrially picturesque cement manufacturing, processing, and shipping complex was built in 1926 and c. 1951 There are two large elevators on the site: a squat set of 24 bins, in two bundles of 12, set on a muscular concrete frame under which trucks are loaded (c. 1951), and a taller and narrower elevator for rail service (1926), which is connected to a packing house of concrete. A three-binned clinker elevator to store and ship clinker (1928) stands to the south of the first two, and is interesting for its one interstitial “bin” on the east side, which, in fact, is a stair tower with windows at each landing. This is and example of form not following function. Rather, here and elsewhere in Buffalo, it seems to be a case of “form follows economy.”

A voluminous coal and shale storage building, likely the largest such concrete building ever built in the city, with two concrete coal-crusher towers, completes the complex. It is a unique landscape of reinforced concrete architecture. The complex stands alone as an emblem of Buffalo, and a marketing device for the product it manufactured and shipped (all the buildings were of fireproof reinforced concrete construction).

The wrecking company representing the owner avers that "...removing these unsightly structures ...will also enhance Buffalo's waterfront...These structures are unsightly and unwelcoming for residents, tourists and new commerce." Nothing could be further from the truth. The complex is a defining element of the Buffalo waterfront, a picturesque part of the image our local tourism program projects to the outside world. How many cities in the world have reinforced concrete elevators on the cover of their official tourist magazine, as Buffalo does this year?

Since I wrote the first guidebook to Buffalo’s waterfront in 1993—which sought to document and popularize these industrial and social monuments—Buffalo has lost the H&O Oats, Wheeler, Wollenberg, and Schaeffer grain elevators. We cannot afford to lose this complex without eroding our heritage and a foundation of our visitor economy. 

Imagine saving the complex and restoring the land, too. That would be a magnificent public amenity that would pay dividends across the generations, and be the closest we are ever going to get to realizing Frederick Law Olmsted's 1888 vision for a park on Lake Erie just south of this point.