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ELEVATORS WHAT DOES A CITY TRYING TO BUILD ITSELF A FUTURE DO WITH A COLLECTION OF MAMMOTH RELICS FROM A VANISHED PAST?

Come to downtown Buffalo along South Park Avenue. Looming straight ahead in the distance, there's a symbol of Buffalo present, its tallest building, the Marine Midland Center.

In the distance to the left is a symbol of Buffalo's past, the Concrete Central grain elevator, the largest grain unloading and transfer facility in the world when it was built in three construction seasons beginning in 1915.

Concrete Central, out of use for 23 years, is a mammoth, sorry derelict stretching about a quarter of a mile along the Buffalo River. It's a ghost of a prosperous yesterday.

In the glory days of Great Lakes shipping, Buffalo collected grain elevators. They were part of the city's muscle, fitting reminders that this town did a lot of the world's heavy lifting one way or another.

Today they are widely perceived as dinosaurs, and not very good-looking ones at that, taking up space on the Buffalo waterfront. They have their defenders, including the ardent ones of the Buffalo Industrial Heritage Committee, who find a kind of utilitarian beauty in their lines and favor their preservation as a necessary part of honoring Buffalo's past and the hardworking people who lived it. But it isn't hard to find others in the city, both officials and ordinary citizens, who will say, usually quietly, "Tear them down."

What the casual observer may not realize is that while about half of the 15 elevators still standing on the waterfront, including some of the biggest ones, are indeed unused industrial hulks, the others are still in use.

Three are actually still used for storing grain. The big lake freighters still come up the Buffalo River several times a week in the shipping season with grain in their holds.

General Mills Inc. operates facilities where the Buffalo River and the City Ship Canal meet. The place hums. There are 460 people employed in the cereal plant, where Wheaties and Cheerios are made. When the wind is right, the smell in the lower part of downtown is sweet enough to eat. Another 150 people work in the flour mill.

ConAgra Inc. employs 90 to 100. It stores grain at the Lake & Rail elevator along the Buffalo River and makes bulk flour for bakeries at an adjacent Childs Street mill.

ADM Milling Co. stores grain in the Standard elevator along the Buffalo River at Ohio Street and operates a mill on Ganson Street on Kelly Island. The company will not divulge local employment numbers.

Because of this activity, Buffalo continues to bill itself as the largest grain-milling center in the country. But the key word is "milling." The only grain coming here now is the grain that will be processed here. In a much busier past, huge amounts were transferred here from Great Lakes ships to trains headed east. This transshipping was killed for good by the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 and the loss of preferential rail rates in 1964.

According to Jack Sharpe, a talkative man with 46 years in the grain business including a stint as president of the Corn Exchange, about 700 million bushels of grain arrived in Buffalo in peak years. Today, it's about 20 million.

That change accounts for the vast emptiness at Concrete Central.

Besides the three waterfront elevators where grain is still being stored, five others are in use. One holds cement, delivered by lake freighter and shipped out by truck. But the others serve purposes that don't always fill them to anything approaching their capacity -- boat storage and animal-feed manufacture.

Sharpe, the nostalgic former owner of Sunshine Feed and Grain Co., is blunt about the future of the elevators that are no longer in use. He thinks they should be demolished.

"They are concrete mausoleums," he says, "They should be torn down. The land is valuable. Everyone wants to be near the water."

Visionaries who would like to see the Buffalo River lined with luxury condominiums and townhouses, as riverfront is in Vancouver, B.C., would have to agree. Empty elevators are not particularly desirable as neighbors in a modern residential setting, though small First Ward houses sit surprisingly close to some of Buffalo's now.

Any decaying structure will look unsightly to some people. And the elevators can be dangerous. Before the city removed the first-floor stairway at the ruins of Concrete Central, a young boy was killed in a fall from the roof.

But though the presence of the elevators may indeed slow redevelopment, demolition isn't likely anytime soon. For one thing, all of the vacant elevators are still privately owned except Concrete Central, which fell into the unwilling hands of City Hall in a tax foreclosure case in 1973.

But the big deterrent is the cost. Tearing down a grain elevator isn't like tearing down one of Buffalo's 19th-century office buildings -- a job that many Buffalonians would say developers have found far too easy.

The elevators, constructed to contain tons of grain, are massive and thick-walled. In the Town of Tonawanda, a coalition of officials is working to bring about demolition of the dangerous abandoned Agway elevators on Military Road. Close cost estimates are being developed, but the working number officials are using at this point is $2 million. And that's just for one elevator.

For the time being, the Buffalo elevators' stubborn structural soundness is probably the biggest factor keeping them in place.

One group that's happy for anything that will save them is the Industrial Heritage Committee. It calls Buffalo's elevators "one of the greatest collections of these unique architectural and engineering marvels in the world."

Each summer, the committee sponsors Buffalo River boat tours to show off the elevator collection. The committee is also pushing for an industrial heritage walking trail with markers showing historic points along a three-mile loop through the grain elevator district.

The elevators are, indeed, historic. Grain elevators were invented in Buffalo. Modern elevators hark back to 1842, when merchant Joseph Dart rigged a series of scoop-like buckets on a steam-driven belt. The moving belt reached into the hold of ships to pull out the grain and lift it into huge bins. Tough First Ward workers called scoopers kept the buckets full. There are still scoopers on the waterfront today, though they have a lot less work.

Today, Dart and machinist Robert Dunbar are commemorated by a historical marker near the Miss Buffalo dock.

Lorraine Pierro of the industrial heritage group believes the elevators are worth preserving as Buffalo's signature. "Everyone is looking for a theme and a vision," she says, "It's out there. It's so obvious. We can't seem to notice it. Other places are making use of their industrial heritage better than we are."

Most particularly, her group is interested in Concrete Central because it is the only publicly owned elevator. Ms. Pierro says the interior could be used for exhibits on Buffalo industry and technology and the surrounding grounds for a park, maybe a national park. "It would extol grain elevators as a Buffalo invention and promote the Buffalo area and its waterfront," she says.

But Concrete Central is tough to reach by land, and its isolation is one barrier that would have to be overcome. Its friends say there is a rough private road off Ohio Street. Otherwise, it's an attraction for tour boats.

Concrete Central was owned for more than 22 years by the Continental Grain Co. It survived the St. Lawrence Seaway because Continental -- heavily into overseas trading -- used its vast storage areas to hold grain supplies to avoid flooding foreign markets and depressing prices.

But Continental could not hold on forever. It sold Concrete Central in 1967, and by 1973 the whole thing fell into the city's hands after a tax-foreclosure auction at which no one bid. Since then the city has held two auctions that drew no bidders. A Kentucky businessman, owner of a coal company, showed interest earlier this year, but he didn't follow through. His sketchy plan is a dead issue.

According to a massive Buffalo fact-gathering mission by the National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record, Concrete Central was stripped of much of its machinery by scavengers and vandals, "leaving only a building shell and odd pieces of equipment."

Preservation interest also centers on the oldest remaining elevator and the only surviving metal one, the Great Northern on Ganson Street, built in 1897 and out of use since 1981. It was an enterprise of James Jerome Hill, a prime railroad capitalist of his time. He wanted a fireproof elevator to replace wooden ones and had the money to get what he wanted.

Today it is a rusted hulk. The owner, ADM, wants to tear it down and replace it with a modern facility, but the Buffalo Preservation Board gave its approval conditioned on retaining one of the bins for historic purposes. ADM is suing to remove the board's provisions.

Advocates of preservation point to reuses of elevators elsewhere, especially in Akron, Ohio, where a white elephant, the old Quaker Oats mills and silos, was turned into a hotel, retail and entertainment complex. The hotel rooms are totally round.

But Quaker Oats was located in the heart of Akron, making it a logical spot for a hotel. At best, Buffalo's elevators are at the edge of downtown.

Is City Hall interested in restoration?

Here's Mayor Masiello on the subject: "Our elevators are an important part of our past. I'd like to see restoration, but it's a matter of resources and demand. I don't know if I could use public money. There's a great drain on city resources. I don't see where the money would come from."

City Community Development Commissioner Alan DeLisle says the city is open to suggestions about the elevators but is not presently focusing on them.

And so the elevators remain, a few still humming with activity but most unused or used in ways that have nothing to do with their original mission. They are likely to sit much as they are for some time to come.

After all, they were built to last. Construction of elevators was in the hands of several specialist companies. Sometimes there was a rush to get done. According to The Buffalo Evening News of Oct. 1, 1940, the Cargill elevator at Ohio and Childs streets was being hurried along so that its 6 million-bushel capacity would be ready to receive Western grain before the close of the navigation season.

Here's the News account: "Ready-mixed concrete, delivered in giant revolving drums on motor trucks, will be poured day and night for two solid weeks, and the walls will shoot upward at a rate of 6 to 12 feet a day.

"The concrete will be poured into what contractors call 'slip' forms. These forms, made of wood, are fashioned in a manner which permits them to be pushed upward as the concrete dries.

"Continuous pouring of the concrete is necessary so that the concrete poured each day will bond with that poured the previous day and so there will be no marks on the exterior to show where work has stopped or started at different times. Continuous pouring of concrete on a building of this size is unusual."

"Those were wonderful days," remembers Sharpe, the retired grain merchant with the long waterfront memory. "It was a pleasure to work in Buffalo. No one got laid off in those days.

"And if you owned an elevator, you were a millionaire."

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