THE ISSUE of whether official Buffalo landmark status should be provided for an out-of-use 19th century grain elevator serves to focus attention on a unique part of this city's heritage.
Not long ago, a group of Toronto college students toured the Buffalo River and came away enraptured with Buffalo's collection of grain elevators.
Buffalo has about 15 of them, some in use and others deteriorated and abandoned. It is the world's largest collection, a fact that thrills some people and discourages others.
After the trip, one enthusiastic student wrote: "Those elevators, although rundown and in a way very ugly-looking, remind the people of Buffalo of their prosperous past."
Another said: "As we drifted down the river past these cylindrical bins, straight and strong along the water's edge, I sensed a very powerful revelation of Buffalo's past."
The students are right in several ways. The elevators are, at once, ugly in the conventional sense and a huge, impressive presence that renders questions of beauty beside the point. And they are are symbols of this city's muscular past as the grain distributing center of the United States. In the mid-1920s, Buffalo was home to 34 grain elevators with a storage capacity of more than 40 million bushels. More than 250 million bushels of grain flowed through them in the course of a year.
That was then. The question for our time is what to do with these hulking reminders of Buffalo's past. They do not readily convert to other uses. An abandoned concrete elevator in Akron, Ohio, was transformed into a Hilton Hotel, but it would take a shift in development interest to the Buffalo River and its environs to make such a conversion remotely possible in Buffalo. An industrial museum is mentioned sometimes, but there is no rush to finance such a venture. Demolition lurks in the wings, always threatening.
The latest development is a move of the Preservation Coalition of the Niagara Frontier, a private organization, to have the Buffalo Preservation Board, an arm of City Hall, designate the Great Northern grain elevator on Ganson Street an official city landmark.
The Preservation Board should recommend and the Common Council should approve landmark status for the Great Northern. Built in 1898, it is the oldest of the elevators that remain. It is a transitional structure, modern in the sense that it was the first electrically operated elevator here but akin to its predecessors in its shape.
Landmark status cannot ultimately stop demolition, but once a demolition permit is sought, it provides a 180-day delay period while owners, preservation interests and public officials seek alternatives to demolition.
The Pillsbury Co., owner of the Great Northern, opposes landmark status as not practical for a building it plans not to use again. Spokesmen insist the company has no timetable for demolition.
But at the same time they express concern about health and safety risks because the Great Northern is a close neighbor to a functioning flour mill and is said to be losing mortar and pieces of sheet metal. They want Buffalonians -- including Preservation Board and Common Council members -- to understand these risks.
But demolition, for a building, is death, the final thing with no second chances. Landmark status provides a useful waiting period. The Great Northern is worth that measure of protection.