By Paul McDonnell. Originally published in The Buffalo News April 5, 2022
The Great Northern grain elevator, the first and last of its kind, is still standing. It has just passed two significant anniversaries. February marked the 125th anniversary of the beginning of construction. More infamously, March 27 marked the 100th day since Buffalo’s Commissioner for Permits and Inspection Services issued an emergency demolition order to destroy the iconic Buffalo landmark, fearful of an imminent “collapse” because a section of brick cladding on the building’s north side had fallen on December 11.
The Great Northern won’t be collapsing anytime soon. Independent, informed, and licensed engineers and architects would tell you that.
Here’s why: The innovative steel frame of Max Toltz, Chief Engineer of the Great Northern Railway—the first railroad to cross the Continental Divide through the Cascade Mountains. Giant steel cylindrical grain bins are riveted together and to the frame to create a single solid mass of steel anchored to bedrock.
Those thousands of tons of steel had to be isolated from the brick envelope, allowing them to expand and contract—to “breathe”— independently. Toltz’s solution was ingenious. The brick wall, several feet thick with its own foundation, merely keeps the weather out and bins shaded. Everything else is supported by the steel frame. From the ground, it looks like the roof rests on the walls, just as at your house. It doesn’t. The cupola doesn’t touch the brick walls, either. On the inside, the last 20 feet of either end of the cupola is hung—cantilevered—so no steel touches brick.
The form of the Great Northern was, and is, tried and true. Another railroad had established that 20 years earlier, with a wood-framed, wooden-binned behemoth in New York Harbor. Its brick walls were of the classic pier-and-panel design that could be seen on medieval churches and storehouses. The trick was to replace the wood with stronger, non-combustible steel, without the steel heaving against the brick enclosure. Toltz did that historically well.
The design of the Great Northern is robust and time-tested. Lack of proper maintenance is the problem. For example, lead flashing that capped the walls was allowed to deteriorate and go missing entirely. This resulted in unchecked water infiltration for decades, with bushes growing out of the north wall where it failed in December.
The Great Northern should have been fixed long ago, the owner held to account and directed by a city agency that knew what it was doing and acted in good faith. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo’s is fighting the emergency demolition order, and that is its argument. An appeals court in Rochester will decide beginning April 6th whether that argument has merit and whether the Great Northern ought to reign another 125 years as the Waterfront Queen of the Queen City.