The Great Northern grain elevator, a City of Buffalo landmark since 1990, for the second time in its history suffered extensive damage to its north brick curtain wall in a windstorm late Saturday afternoon. The resulting opening has the effect of a giant cutaway model, revealing a secret of the historically important elevator—the brick cladding is merely a curtain covering ranks of giant steel grain bins inside. The mammoth cylindrical bins—there are 30, each of which can hold 74,000 bushels of grain—were an important advance over the prevalent 5,000-bushel wooden bins of the time. The bins, including smaller interstitial bins between, stand on a steel frame and themselves support a steel platform on which sits a steel 4-story work house. The brick curtain wall was completed after everything else. It was thought by the designer that the brick cladding would guarantee that the steel bins would not be effected by solar exposure or weathering.
The Great Northern has been owned by the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) since the early 1990s. ADM, with revenues of $64.6 billion in 2019, with net income of $16.3 billion (for comparison, Buffalo's most recent budget was about $740 million). ADM has wanted to demolish the Great Northern since the day it bought it during the Masiello Administration. Preservationists, led by Sue McCartney of the Preservation Coalition and the Grain Shovelers Union, fought off demolition in a long battle in the mid-1990s. Despite the landmark designation and obvious water damage to the brick envelope, neither the Masiello or Brown administrations has ever compelled ADM to so much as fix a gutter or downspout. The Preservation Coalition and The Campaign for Greater Buffalo repeatedly urged city officials over the years to address the building code violations.
Perhaps ADM, caught rigging the corn-sweetener market at the same time as it was trying to first demo the Great Northern, is too intimidating for the city to take on. Not many companies can pay $400 million settlements and $100 million fines for price-fixing, tax dodging, bribery, polluting, and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADM_(company)). Not many companies have books written about them called "Rats in the Grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland, the Supermarket to the World "
The cladding failure at the Great Northern is just the latest in a series of high-profile collapses or flagrant and consequence-lite building code violations during the last few years, including 435 Ellicott Street (the City performed a quick emergency demolition itself after the roof collapsed on the occupied building in December of 2019), 324 Oak Street (catastrophic structural collapse last July). In addition, two other local landmarks are endangered through malignant neglect, the Meidenbauer House at 204 High Street in the Fruit Belt and the iconic buildings of the Cobblestone Historic District, 110 and 118-120 South Park Avenue. The Meidenbauer house was seized by the city in 2005, shortly before Mayor Brown took office and has been left to rot as the city entertains a series of developers who only want to demolish the building for the land.
The embarrassing Ellicott Street collapse and demo prompted Brown to institute an inspection blitz to take on neglected commercial properties. Announcing the effort in February 2020, Brown said "We simply will not allow problem properties to exist." Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services James Comerford added "We're not going to put up with it anymore." Having put up with it for 14 years, the Administration was going to put it foot down. Here is the chance to deal with a very big problem and save a city landmark from a very unpleasant and irresponsible multi-national enterprise that has demonstrated contempt for the city.
At the Great Northern, it is clear from construction documents and the 1907 incident, that the mere failure of cladding, spectacular though it seems, does not dictate demolition, nor is it a danger to the public. It lies far from the public way and the City Ship Canal exposure can be controlled by a buoy line. ADM should be compelled to fix it (insurance would pay for most of it), as well as to, finally, install the gutters and downspouts that you and I would have to do on our houses. Thirty years is long enough to have put up with it.