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There is no emergency. New model shows why Great Northern won't fall down or blow over

Great Northern folio 1
Unless an appeals court intervenes, Buffalo is heading headlong into the avoidable destruction of one of its most significant buildings. It is doing it because of a rushed error in judgement by the person in charge of code enforcement who did not seek or gather advice from anyone except his staff and the intransigently negligent building owner. He came to the conclusion that one of the most stoutly constructed buildings in the city was in imminent danger of collapse, if its 60-foot high, 40-foot wide, 400-foot long top didn’t blow off first. He saw it as an emergency requiring the setting aside of public hearings, environmental reviews, and asbestos removal. He did not consider how the alleged danger could be abated without demolition.

Commissioner James Comerford of the Buffalo Department of Permits and Inspection Services did all of those things, and because of his unwillingness to admit to a mistake, the Great Northern grain elevator is, at the moment, at the mercy of the appeals court. Comerford’s boss, Mayor Byron Brown, insists his hands are tied and that he cannot pull back the emergency demolition order. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, which sued to stop the demolition, has insisted since a section of brick cladding fell during a windstorm on December 11, that owner ADM’s 30-year record of negligence not be rewarded with a demolition permit, and that, since the Brown Administration issued the Order of Condemnation which called for the emergency demo, the Brown Administration could revoke it given new information.

Greater Buffalo Jan. 2022 cover 1The Campaign has constructed a CAD model of the Great Northern structural steel skeleton and primary steel grain bins— a new visualization based on a 125-year-old original in City Hall files. ...continue reading: Download Greater Buffalo Jan. 2022 Great Northern

What happened at the Great Northern? Why no one actually knows.

What happened cover 1

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, currently engaged in a battle to overturn or have revoked an emergency demolition order on the historic Great Northern grain elevator, has contended from the start that owner ADM's submittals in support of demolition were far from ironclad. Buffalo Commissioner of Permits & Inspections Jim Comerford testified in court that he relied, in part, on the "engineering reports" provided by ADM in making his decision to require the emergency demolition of the giant waterfront landmark—the world's oldest electrically powered grain elevator, and the very last of its kind (a brick-clad working-house elevator, which gives it its distinctive profile in Buffalo's renowned industrial landscape). Now it seems ADM's reports are thin-sliced baloney.

Tim Tielman, Campaign executive director, asked SUNY Distinguished Professor Andrew Whittaker of UB's Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering what should be in a condition assessment of buildings such as Buffalo's "outstanding collection of 1860-1920 industrial and commercial architecture," in order to aid the Campaign in evaluating the structures. Dr. Whittaker has spent his adult life figuring out why buildings fall down, stand up, and can be made to keep standing. His response throws more doubt on the usefulness of the ADM material to come to any conclusions about the condition of the Great Northern or whether those conditions require an emergency demolition.

Dr. Whittaker, a registered California civil and structural engineer and a Fellow of the Structural Engineering Institute, responded by email and provided an eight-point list of what should be included in a condition assessment of an older building. There may be additional information needed for a particular assessment. Dr. Whittaker's eight points were:

  1. Review of as-built drawings and calculations, and construction photographs, if available.
  2. Walkdown of the building to document the as-built construction, including the elements of the gravity- and lateral-load-resisting systems (i.e., for wind and earthquake loadings), and non-structural elements.
  3. Survey of the building to confirm physical geometry (e.g., floor elevations, envelope shape), reinforcement of concrete elements, etc.
  4. Testing of in-situ material properties (e.g., steel framing, masonry and grouting, timber, concrete and reinforcement) sufficient in scope to inform mathematically modeling of the gravity- and lateral-force-resisting systems.
  5. Documentation of foundations and condition, if as-built drawings are not available.
  6. Development of a 3D mathematical model of the building, using information from the above steps, sufficient for analysis of the building for gravity and lateral loads.
  7. Analysis of the 3D model for gravity and lateral loadings.
  8. Performance evaluation of elements of the gravity- and lateral-load-resisting systems, and non-structural elements (e.g., cladding, interior masonry walls).

None of these were provided in any of the reports ADM placed before Comerford. Comerford made no attempt to get any other information from outside his office, nor did he return phone calls from Paul McDonnell, an architect and president of the Campaign, and Tim Tielman, Campaign executive director, who sought to discuss the building with him in the days after the windstorm of Dec. 11 during which a part of the north cladding wall failed. The question is, what didn't Comerford know, and why didn't he know it?

One thing is certain, based on court testimony, ADM documents, and now Dr. Whittaker's Eight Points: No one can actually knows what happened at the north wall of Great Northern, or whether its condition requires demolition, much less that it constitutes an emergency. McDonnell sent the mayor a detailed letter  on Sunday pointing out the lack of reliability in the ADM documents and Comerford's interpretation of video and photographs. The Campaign has submitted affidavits and argued that netting and fencing could abate any hazard from falling debris that might occur while repairs and further understanding of the condition of the Great Northern can be obtained.

The Mayor should revoke the demo permit and cite ADM for its serious building code violations and order them repaired. That places liability back on ADM, abates any public danger, and gets the landmark repaired.


Emergency demo bids threaten to be new normal

You can bet every bad-actor commercial property owner in Buffalo is closely following Archer Daniels Midland's (ADM) attempt to use the emergency demolition powers of the Commissioner of Permits and Inspections to ram through, under the cloak of public safety, demolition of the landmark Great Northern  elevator. If the ADM action succeeds, it will be a blueprint for every other bad actor in town. Campaigns for emergency demolition— orders which should either not be considered at all (in place of ordering repairs) or should go through the normal Preservation Board review of public hearings, document preparation according to city standards, and possible site visits by experts—will be normalized.

To be sure, many negligent owners have pleaded in Housing Court for non-emergency demolition orders as a way to address egregious building-code violations, but requesting an emergency demolition order as a business model is a dangerous precedent for public accountability and invites corruption. ADM, according to Permits & Inspections commissioner James Comerford, approached him in 2020 about granting it and emergency demolition order, presumably after sharing much of the dubious evidence the company submitted for the present emergency demo order.

The ADM action has all the hallmarks of a legal strategy long in the making; the recent windstorm that contributed to the toppling of the north wall of was a godsend for ADM.

That is one of the reasons Paul McDonnell, president of The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, urged Mayor Byron Brown to rescind the Order of Condemnation (the emergency demolition order) in a letter hand-delivered to City Hall today. McDonnell also explained why the engineering submissions provided by ADM— more short expressions of opinion than substantiated conditions reports—are not reliable foundations for decisions on emergency demolition. McDonnell also provided drawings and photographs to demonstrate the robust design and construction of the Great Northern that were easily available to Comerford but were not consulted by him.

The Campaign is seeking a preliminary injunction against the Great Northern demolition from the Appellate Division 4th Part of State Court pending a hearing.

You can make a donation to support the Campaign's work on the Great Northern and other issues highlighted in the pages of Great Buffalo:

Great Northern before:after 4
Abandonment and lack of maintenance since 1982 caused the weakening at the top of the north wall, where deteriorated and missing flashing designed to protect against water infiltration was never fixed. Bushes were growing on top of the wall in 2018. Only the backing strips of the flashing were left after the brick cladding below gave way in a windstorm on December 11. Illustration included in Campaign for Greater Buffalo letter to Mayor Byron Brown.

Imagine the Great Northern as a case of beer in a cardboard sleeve

Six pack 1The Great Northern grain elevator, despite the tear in its brick wrapper, is in no more danger of collapsing than a six pack of Genny cans left out on your deck in the rain. That's because not only is the 30-pack of steel cylinders strong on its own (each can withstand internal pressures of 17,000 lbs. per square inch), each is bolted to eight massive steel columns, which are then bolted to every adjacent cylindrical bin. On top of everything, the roof and cupola (themselves composed of girders up to 60 inches deep) are supported by a series of these same columns. The entire vast assemblage is attached to gargantuan footings which rest on 6,000 piles that go to bedrock.

Great Northern  Hole  Full Moon_12.12.2021 NancyJParisi-1Why the big hole, then? Imagine someone left your six-pack out in the rain. It is sitting on the deck next to the cooler, pathetically soggy, as you start cleaning things up. Your foot bumps against it, tearing the cardboard sleeve. But the cans stay put! Now imagine those cans attached to each other with one of those plastic thingamabobs. Then add a hundred more. That's how solid the Great Northern is. You could pick up that six-pack and throw it across the yard. It is going to be intact after it lands, even if the cardboard sleeve is totally shorn off. The sleeve doesn't support anything.

Screen Shot 2022-01-08 at 9.36.25 AMIf you want a more wholesome image, imagine a vintage steel milk crate. Imagine instead of holding bottles it is holding steel cans. The cans are riveted to the carrier's steel frame.  Nothing is tearing that framework asunder.

Below are illustrations of the ingeniously engineered structure of the Great Northern as documented by the Historic American Engineering Record ( a collaboration of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Park Service,  and the Library of Congress) and in the 1990 application for landmark status on file in City Hall. Buffalo Commissioner of Permits and Inspections James Comerford never availed himself of this information before he came to the irrational decision that the Great Northern could collapse or its cupola blow off in its entirety and ordered an emergency demolition. The order can be revoked by Mayor Byron Brown.

Great Northern Scientic Am cover image
The 30-pack of the Great Northern's primary bins is standing on its own in this depiction of the elevator from the cover of Scieniftic American, Dec. 25, 1897. The workhouse or cupola, supported by columns rising from the foundation and anchored to bedrock is under construction from the north end. The brick wrapper is being raised last.
Great Northern bins & columns
Diagram of the primary bins and secondary bins interconnected with primary and secondary structural columns. A set of primary columns rose from the basement to support the roof and cupola.
Great Northern HAER Basement  clean-up cart 1985
Massive 29” x 30” main columns, plus scores of others, combine with the steel bins to form a single immovable mass of steel that will keep the Great Northern standing for centuries
Great Northern bin bolts & rivets
Each bin is bolted to each of eight surrounding columns, which are bolted to all abutting bins, forming a monolithic construction which would survive the strongest earthquake imaginable. View of a Great Northern bin interior.

Brown Administration conjures fire, ADM fans flames

ADM Scare Talk 2 2
No, the Great Northern is not going to burn, and there is nothing inside it that will burn either.

The Brown Administration, apparently seeking to bolster its emergency demolition order on the Great Northern grain elevator, obtained a letter from the fire commissioner advocating for the demolition. The letter was and included in court documents filed and referenced during testimony of Permits & Inspections Commissioner James Comerford in an evidentiary hearing on Monday January 3 in the Campaign for Greater Buffalo's lawsuit against the City of Buffalo and owner ADM. Attorneys for ADM stoked the flames during Comerford's testimony and a summation before State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo.

The letter did not include any references to any BFD personnel inspecting the site in person, and all information and conclusions seem to be based on a briefing in Comerford's office. There were three interesting points, beyond the expected blather of "a multitude of life safety hazards."

The first was that BFD was told the demolition would take six months. Six months not because of the brick sheathing, but, we assume, the almost comically overbuilt steel framing featuring over almost 50 main support columns 30" x 29" in section that rise all the way to the top.

The second is that the fireboat Cotter "travels that section of the canal quite frequently, especially during the upcoming winter season [sic] as it is tasked with keeping the canal clear of ice for the ships that dock at various locations..." Um, there is only one commercial site on the City Ship Canal that would require passing the Great Northern: a sand company well to the south on the opposite bank. It generally plans to store enough sand to make it through the winter by November. The winter navigation season is determined by the Welland Canal and Lake Erie. There's no need for breaking ice in the City Ship Canal if there is no shipping.

Third, and the reason anyone would be interested in what the BFD thinks of the Great Northern: "Firefighting access to any section of this building will be severely limited due to the potential of collapse." But to need firefighting access one presumes there could be a fire. In a structure built to be fireproof? That has never in its 125-year history had a structural fire? Not while it was storing almost 3,000,000 bushels of wheat on any given day, not since the bins were emptied out in 1981, not since ADM bought it in 1993? That doesn't have any vagrants trying to keep warm besides the odd pigeon?

The BFD offers this: "there are still combustibles that will burn inside." What, historic Henry's Hamburgers wrappers from 1981? The odd rope? The fire commissioner offers no evidence.

Here is what Scientific America said about the Great Northern in a cover article about its construction in 1897: "The structure is com­posed wholly of stone, brick and steel,and there is no wood or' other inflam­mable matter in the building or used in its construction...excepting the roller top des k of the elevator superintend­ent, and this is locat­ed in his office. which is nothing more or less than a brick vault with a brick and steel ceiling.

"The transformer room is a solid brick vault with arch brick sills resting on steel girders. The construction of the building is such that it is absolutely proof against fire, and the protecting of grain stored therein by insurance is almost a sentimental safeguard. The structure has been so recognized by the Board of Underwriters in the making of the rate for this hazard so low that the cost of insurance is of but little moment."

There hasn't been a structural fire at the Great Northern in its 125-year existence. There is not, despite ADM's attorney so stating, "a likelihood of fire." The letter from the fire commissioner and the touting of it in a nearly hour-long radio interview given by Mayor Brown and Comerford on the afternoon the emergency demo order was announced, not to mention affadavits and court proceedings, is a shameful CYA operation. The only thing at risk of fire is a fibber's pants.

Brown Administration swallows ADM's scare talk whole

ADM Scare Talk w:o caption 1

The Brown Administration seeks to reward the 29-year maintenance negligence of the landmark Great Northern grain elevator by Archer Daniels Midland Milling (ADM) by rushing to issue an emergency demolition order after a partial collapse of a non-bearing brick cladding during a Dec. 11 windstorm. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo went to court to block the demo. The case is being heard in State Supreme Court before Justice Emilio Colaiacovo.

In court documents and testimony, Permits & Inspections Commissioner James Comerford admitted that he and no one on his staff is a licensed engineer, and that he relied on reports by ADM engineers and his experience in judging that the only way to abate an imminent threat is to immediately begin a 6-month-long demolition of the elevator.  Comerford also admitted he consulted with no one outside his office or ADM, including historic preservation professionals, before he made his decision to order the condemnation and immediate demolition of the Great Northern.

ADM, which has attempted to demolish the elevator since it bought it in 1993, in documents and court threw out a number of unsupported allegations, hoping some would stick. A piece of scare talk ADM and the City continually returned to was the notion that the elevator's superstructure is somehow unsupported since the brick cladding below it has given way, and represents an imminent danger to the public. Comerford and his crew ate it up.

In his Notice of Condemnation ordering the emergency demolition of the Great Northern, Comerford offers several rationales for his decision, including this easily belied notion: “The roof deck and penthouse/cupola lacks structural support where the northern brick wall failed. The roof deck and penthouse/ cupola appear to cantilever for approximately 15 feet without support at the north end.” Had Comerford deigned to look at building data on hand in City Hall to determine the structural characteristics of the building, he would have understood what drone footage and contemporaneous  drawings, photographs, and descriptions make clear: the cupola is supported by a steel frame that is independent of the brick walls.

Great Northern close-up 1985  detail Jet Lowe  McCurdy
Detail from 1985 Historic American Engineering Record photograph of Great Northern documents condition of top of north wall four years after Pillsbury company stopped using the unionized elevator. Part of the flashing on top of the wall is missing, corresponding with the spalled brick pattern below it. To the right, flashing with drip edge still intact.

Great Northern cupola-wall interface
Deteriorated flashing and bare backing straps where flashing is entirely gone mark the junction of the cupola wall and the Great Northern's brick north wall, which was built in front of the plane of the cupola. The flashing was meant to protect the top of the wall from water infiltration. ADM has not repaired the flashing since it bought the Great Northern in 1993. City inspectors have never cited ADM or previous owner Pillsbury for building code violations.

Drone footage and photographs that Comerford looked at shows that the brick wall is constructed well in front of the plane of the cupola. A length of  deteriorated flashing is clearly visible at the base of the cupola wall where it formerly met the top of the north wall and bare backing straps, where flashing is entirely gone, cover the rest of the run. The flashing was meant to protect the brick from water.

But you don't see what you don't want to see if you have a case of confirmation bias. Instead, as offered in his affadavit, Comerford sees this: "The roof deck and penthouse/cupola support structure appear to have failed anchorage points where the northern masonry wall failed."

Great Northern Scientic Am cover image
View of Great Northern under construction, from southeast. At the north end, (the location of the recent wall damage) the workhouse has been completed, including its corrugated sheathing. It stands, atop massive steel columns and bins (which themselves can support over 4,000,000 lbs. of wheat each), with nary a brick near. Were one to remove the Great Northern's brick wrapping down to the basement level today, this is exactly what would safely remain.

Hogwash. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), a collaboration of National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Library of Congress, states it simply: "The cupola consisted of a structural steel trussed framework clad in corrugated iron and rising to a height of 184'. The entire weight of the structure was carried by the extensions of the basement columns."

The superstructure, sometimes called the cupola or workhouse, was erected before the brick cladding was built up from below and in front of it. This can be seen in the widely reproduced and posted engraving published on the cover of Scientific American on December 25, 1897. The view is from the southeast. The primary bins have been completed and brick envelope is being built up, with the basement level complete. At the north end, the workhouse has been completed, including its corrugated cladding. There it stands, atop massive steel columns and bins (which themselves can hold over 4,000,000 lbs. of wheat each), with nary a brick near. Were one to remove the Great Northern's brick wrapping down to the basement level today, this is exactly what would safely remain (thereby abating any alleged collapse hazard!).

This information was freely available to Comerford and Mayor Brown in the landmark application of 1990, on file in City Hall. The application, in the main text and in appendices, contained detailed descriptions of the structural components of the elevator and the sequence of its construction. A simple internet search would have turned up the in-depth HAER report, including over 50 documentary photographs.

Comerford did not avail himself of this information. Nor did he return phone calls from architect and former Preservation Board chair Paul McDonnell and Campaign Executive Director Tim Tielman made days after the collapse. Both McDonnell and Tielman sought to inform Comerford of the construction details of the building, methods of abating any hazard at the site, and recommend other preservation architects and engineers who could be consulted, and directed him to the HAER report.