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.
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.
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."
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.