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‘Something about’ those grain giants

She knew it all along. Everybody else finally is catching up. Other little girls play with dolls. Lorraine Pierro was mesmerized by concrete monoliths. Her dad and uncles worked on the Buffalo docks. She was 9 when she first saw up close the massive grain elevators lining the waterfront. It was industrial-strength love at first sight; the start of a lifelong relationship.

“There was,” she told me Thursday, “just something about them.”

It took awhile, but the sentiment is spreading.

The auction Wednesday of the Cargill Pool Grain Elevator on the outer harbor for $475,000 – it was bought in 1983 for $10,000 – sets high market value on Pierro’s object of devotion. Buffalo-based FFZ Holdings reportedly plans a mixed-use project.

Granted, the hefty price is largely a testament to the enhanced worth of our blossoming waterfront. But the sale is the latest in a series of elevator-validating events. A Canalside grain elevator will be among the “canvases” for a $5 million kinetic light show next year. In the last year, businessman Rick Smith has opened his three Silo City elevators for art extravaganzas. Concrete behemoths that many thought should be condemned have now become cool – and are ready for their close-up.

No one is happier than the slender, warrior-intense Pierro. The president of the Industrial Heritage Committee looks less these days like an eccentric than a visionary. She and fellow devotee Jerry Malloy have for 28 years taken folks into the heart of our industrial past, guiding Buffalo River boat tours deep into grain elevator country. The state this year is finally doing the grain elevator walking tour, along the remade Fuhrmann Boulevard, that Pierro has pushed for a quarter-century.

“That’s the original ‘Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper,’ as far as I’m concerned,” she said, reciting our recent waterfront mantra.

Time and circumstance have validated her sense of the elevators’ historic and aesthetic worth. For whatever reason, these emblems of our past industrial might have always been an easier sell to outsiders. They helped inspire the early 20th century Bauhaus “form follows function” movement. In 1990, federal archivists documented our collection, then the world’s largest. Architecture students trek here from distant lands. From Ohio to France, similar structures have gotten second lives as hotels and offices, even as an opera house.

Yet many locals dismiss them as eyesores. The slight regard always perplexed me – and not just because the first behemoth, made of wood, was birthed here in 1842. Like negligent parents, locals seemed eager to disown their offspring.

True, they are more beast than beauty, comparatively closer to mastodons than to mermaids. Yet to this Buffalo transplant, they always seemed like concrete dinosaurs, rising from the scrub brush along the Buffalo River plain like frozen-in-time fossils. Their inert mass stamped Buffalo’s broad-shouldered identity and shouted “sense of place” in an increasingly homogenized world. What was not to like?

For decades, Pierro has been their fiercest champion. “This is our history,” she said. “It seems like there is a new appreciation and recognition of them.”

Long before a community’s eyes opened wider, she knew.