For Buffalo's Grain Elevators, an Experimental Second Act

The formerly empty icons have become a space for art, ping pong balls, and eerie trombone concerts. 

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JoAnn Greco

Outside, birds chirp, gravel crunches underfoot, and a crew of scullers drifts idly along the picturesque Buffalo River. But enter the inner bowels of the abandoned Marine A grain elevator — dating from 1925, it's the largest of Buffalo's 14 extant concrete behemoths — and the little that is bucolic disappears entirely. 

Cavernous corridors reach as far as the eye can see. Up above, a similar but more conical volume, stretches some 140 feet. Take a step, and the echo reverbs for about nine seconds.

This is Rick Smith's turf and he's had big plans for it ever since acquiring four such structures (for about $40,000 each) from ConAgra six years ago. 

In a bid to return the site to its former heft, he envisioned starting an ethanol production business. But he discovered after removing hundreds of tires and tons of rubble that much of the infrastructure left behind was too decayed. "So, I started playing around with notions of design, theater, and innovation," he says, leading the way through the 20 silos that together make up Marine A.

Up ahead is an example. Hundreds of ping pong balls - they look like a string of pearls - drift in mid-air suspended on nylon cord  from the ceiling. An installation from Christopher Fox, a student at the University of Buffalo, "it has something to do with the clusters of violent crimes in various areas of the United States," says Smith.*

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Mostly, it looks pretty.

In the middle of the final silo, Allison Adderley, an architecture student at the university, has installed a stingray-shaped concrete form covered in fabric and pierced by several holes.* 

To see it from all aspects means clambering into a neighboring chamber where dangling pieces of machinery loom in darkened corners. Their sharp claws lunge, eager to snatch at skirt corners, their rusted railings rise, ready to snag pants legs. 

Back here, it's airless and eerily silent, a perfect setting for the trombone quartet that Smith once arranged to entertain a sold-out crowd. 

"For me, this is all about finding ways to activate the space," he says. "And about getting these kids to stay here and to see that there's opportunities for them here." One thing he's not that interested in: preservation. "It's great to have these vestiges and to keep them intact," he says. "But to limit them to a 'this has to be a museum' concept would be counterproductive. It wouldn't be the highest and best use."

A local character who owns Rigidized Metals, a steel fabricator not far from here, Smith sports a full mustache, drives a '73 Oldsmobile he calls "Big Green," and is seldom seen without a cowboy hat. The elevators' history means a lot to him.

"At their height during the 1920s, the elevators stored 29 million sacks of flour," he says. "That's more than those of the next largest concentrations, in Minneapolis and Kansas City, combined."

But it's the possibility of the new that speaks to him the most. 

Recently, when he discovered a beehive on the site, he challenged graduate students at the university's school of architecture to come up with a solution. Their answer: "Elevator B," a 22-foot tower of stainless steel (supplied by Rigidized) shaped to echo the hexagonal form of a honeycomb cell. 

To step into the narrow structure, "you have to copy the motion of entering the grain elevators," points out Courtney Creenan, who co-designed and built the piece with Scott Selin and three other students. Only in this case, when a visitor peers up, she's greeted by a cypress vitrine swarming with the relocated bees. 

While 20 or 30 curiosity-seekers may stop by each weekend, Smith says much of what he calls "Silo City" is reserved for special events, thanks to insurance concerns. 

Last fall, for instance, a lighting installation drew hundreds of National Trust for Historic Preservation Trust conference attendees. And later this month, he predicts, a similar beehive of activity will ensue.

On Saturday, August 25, "American Grain Reimagined" promises music, theater, and dance to celebrate the Marine A elevator. On September 8, the "City of Night" event will offer concerts, tours, and projections scheduled in and around the elevators.* 

"The magnitude of this campus is huge," Smith says. "I'm trying to take clues from what the site wants to become. It's taken me six years to get my arms around the place," he continues. " At first, I was, like, 'I can fix this, and we then can do that.' Now, I'm not in any hurry."

* Correction: This post originally misidentified the artist who created the ping pong sculpture. It also misstated Allison Adderley's graduate school affiliation and included an incorrect date for the City of Night event.

All photos by JoAnn Greco

About the Author

  • JoAnn Greco writes frequently on the built environment, and is a contributing editor at PlanPhilly.com.