Great Northern in 11th hour as Campaign fights court-imposed limbo
August 31, 2022
I kept on thinking about Al Franken’s book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (With more lies! And New Liars!) as I listened to the testimony of two engineers employed for the purpose of supporting the demolition of the landmark Great Northern grain elevator. It was paid-for poppycockery of the lowest order.
The building, damaged during a December gale, was in “imminent danger of collapse,” according to former Commissioner of Inspections and Permits Services James Comerford, who retired in January. The building still stands eight months later, in no more danger of structural collapse than it ever was. But, Justice Emilio Colaiacovo of State Supreme Court agreed with the City in a first hearing in January an appellate court-ordered further hearing in June that a state of emergency is ongoing. On July 5th, Colaiacovo lifted the TRO imposed by the appellate court.
Too late for the hearing, two sets of construction photos were found in early August that offer yet more confirmation that the building, as engineered, was built without the support of its enclosing brick walls. (Above, a spectacular picture from The Weekly Northwestern Miller; a print of the same was the basis of a sketch printed in the Buffalo Courier of October 4, 1897). Campaign boardmember John Paget also took new drone photographs in early August, which prove any notions of the fallen bricks having jeopardized the structural integrity of the building is —take your pick—paranoia or poppycockery. The pictures show the immense superstructure, with integral cylindrical storage bins and roof, standing on its own before the brick walls are even half built.
More photos, as well as the complete text of this article are in the Sept. 2022 Greater Buffalo Download Greater Buffalo #33 Sept. 2022
To recap, Comerford, with the full support of Mayor Byron Brown, issued a fatwa on the Great Northern on December 17. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo immediately filed suit to stop it, gaining a temporary restraining order (TRO) until the case could be heard. That happened, in a rush, on January 3rd. Judge Colaiacovo would not permit The Campaign to call any witnesses, stating that only Comerford’s testimony was relevant to decide whether his emergency demolition order was “arbitrary and capricious.” Colaiacovo ruled against The Campaign, lifted the TRO, and dismissed the case on January 5th.
The moment a case is dismissed, a party can appeal, and Campaign attorney Richard Berger immediately commenced an appeal based in part on The Campaign not being permitted to present its argument and witnesses. Berger secured a preliminary injunction from Appellate Court justice Tracey Bannister. The appeal was heard in April, with a six-judge panel unanimously finding for The Campaign, and ordering Colaiacovo to hear testimony from The Campaign.
The second hearing before Colaiacovo (actually an extension of the January hearing) was in June. The Campaign’s witness was its volunteer president, Paul McDonnell, former architect for the Buffalo schools and incoming president of the New York State chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Coliacovo discounted McDonnell’s testimony, which included both contemporaneous renderings of the Great Northern during construction (based on photographs on this page) and of a digital model of the Great Northern’s primary structural members commissioned by the Campaign, by virtue of his being association plaintiff, was professionally compromised as an architect. On the other hand, the judge admitted to giving great weight to an engineer paid by ADM’s attorneys specifically to testify in support of demolition who hadn’t been inside the structure or done any forensic investigation at all.
Reyner Banham, who studied the Great Northern intently and clambered throughout, top to bottom, with students during summer field work while the elevator was in operation in 1977, 1978, and 1979, features it in his seminal study Concrete Atlantis (1986).
The Ganson Street side, Banham said “still demonstrates the sheer artistry of the industrial brickwork of the former tradition at its late best—a pure wall, almost uninterrupted by openings and barely modeled by necessities of buttressing and corbeling. Yet this ‘almighty wall’ carries none of the weight of the internal storage system and little of that of the headworks [emphasis added].” I-beams resting longitudinally in a channel of the east and west walls provided a flange to attach the outermost edges of eighth-inch steel plate flooring of the distribution floor. Banham continued, “It is a pure weatherproofing skin, and the closure of the box against the elements is completed by a low-pitched roof whose central part suddenly rises in a steep clerestory...”
Describing the impact of seeing the 400-foot-long, 28-foot high run of the ground floor, Banham likened it to “a gigantic surrealist architecture turned upside down or like the abandoned cathedral of some sect of iron men. Weird as this may sound, it is a highly impressive space, monumental in scale and in the quality of the work, and that is a rare experience in the world of grain elevators, which are not usually, nor need be, provided with anything like public spaces.”
Banham found the four-story working house on top of it all equally moving, “almost cathedral-like: long, lit by ranks of industrial windows in the corrugated roofing on either side, filled with a golden-gray atmosphere of flying grain dust sliced by low shafts of sunlight.”
Banham’s work also informed 1981’s Buffalo Architecture: A Guide (Banham wrote an introduction). “The monumental exterior brick walls are a pure weather barrier, the grain being stored in an independent system of steel bins inside.” [emphasis added] Ditto for the cupola, “an independent structure, steel-framed. [id] ”
In 1990 it was designated as an official Buffalo landmark, resting on an application vetted by the Buffalo Preservation Board. It states flatly that the brick walls are non-structural.
The official record of American engineering says...
The non-structural design intent of the “Great Wall of Buffalo” is most definitively stated by the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), established in 1969 by the National Park Service, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Library of Congress). It is the nation’s official record of exceptional and distinctive works of engineering.
HAER found that “Both main and interspace bins were supported on a network of basement columns. The columns were of box girder form built up from medium steel plate. They were designed to carry 700 tons, including portions of the load of the grain, the dead load of the bin steel work, and the dead, live and wind loads from the cupola. [Emphasis added]
“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 [id]. The first floor of the cupola extended across the full area of the building and contained the spouts and conveyors necessary to distribute the grain to any bin. All subsequent floors were contained within the narrow monitor. ”
That same year, the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER, pronounced hare) was documenting all the Buffalo grain elevators under the supervision of Robert Kapsch, Chief, Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS ) and HAER. Eric DeLony, then Chief and Principal Architect of HAER.
DeLony (d. 2018), who was chief of HAER from 1971 to 2003, personally visited the Great Northern, examining construction documents and plans on file at Pillsbury and City Hall. The verdict of America’s offical record of engineering, made by people who personally inspected the building inside and out and with access to construction documents?
All of this was as nothing to the judge compared to the pronouncements of ADM engineers with no experience with brick walled grain elevators and who did not inspect the building from the interior, nor, it seems, reviewed construction drawings.
Judge rules, but does not dismiss case, blocking appeal while demo plans move forward
All poppycockery notwithstanding, The Campaign could have begun work on an appeal immediately after the judge’s July 5 decision. But.
The judge did not dismiss the case when he decided against The Campaign, which means any appeal under Article 78, the New York procedure for challenging an administrative determination, is impossible and premature. So cited appellate justice John Curran of State Supreme Court when The Campaign sought relief from Colaiacovo’s limbo in July. Colaiacovo can simply ponder the case until kingdom come. Thus, we have a scheduled extinction-of a species of building for which Buffalo is famous, unless The Campaign can get the case before the full appeals court. The Campaign feels its case is as sound as the building, but it must be heard.