There is perhaps no more idyllic picture of post-industrial decay in America than Silo City, a sprawling complex of dormant grain silos and rusted warehouses along the Buffalo River that has been revived by artists, architects, musicians, poets and citizens seeking new adventures in ancient surroundings.
All of this is thanks to Buffalo businessman and cultural impresario Rick Smith, the mustachioed, cowboy-hatted maverick of depthless entrepreneurial vim who purchased the site in 2006. Since then, he has worked with a rotating crew of collaborators to transform the space into Western New York's most sought-after cultural destination.
Silo City is a perfect 716-centric paradox: It is inextricably tied up with the industrial history and erstwhile identity of the city. At the same time, thanks to Smith and his charming caretaker Swannie Jim, it attracts some of the most experimental artists and thinkers in the region and the country to push the boundaries of their chosen forms.
This only stands to reason, as the elevators and their intricate mechanics represent an early American innovation that inspired and informed entire fields of architecture, design and construction that followed.
Torn Space Theater, for example, hosts summerly spectacles in and around the silos. Architectural experiments built by students and faculty at the University at Buffalo rise like strange flora from the wilder sections of the campus. Musicians experiment with the silo's natural reverberations and poets try out new prose as part of the Silo City Reading Series.
Smith, who is also the CEO of the nearby company Rigidized Metals, recently led a 30-minute tour of the site on a sunny spring afternoon. As the venue gears up for a busy summer of concerts, theater productions, readings and festivals, take a walk with Smith through Buffalo's most popular summertime culture destination and check out the view from above with drone video shot by The News' Derek Gee:
Silo City once 'fed the world'
At full capacity, the four massive grain silo complexes that anchor Silo City's campus stored 11 million bushels of grain. Each individual silo, according to Smith, holds up to 67,000 bushels of wheat. Each bushel makes 42 pounds of flour. If you figure one pound of flour per loaf of bread, that means Silo City could store the makings for 462 million loaves of bread at one time.
"That's a lot of millions of sandwiches," Smith said.
The grounds are still healing
During decades of industrial production, the grounds that surround Silo City's warehouses and silos became polluted with the byproducts of storing, packaging and shipping grain and barley. Right now, Smith is overseeing a large-scale restoration of the campus' natural landscape that includes the creation of a meadow, trails and other features meant to bring the land back to its pre-industrial splendor.
It begins near Ohio Street, with Dyosowa Trail – for "land of the basswoods" in the Seneca language – that leads into the wild section of the campus. Smith recently hired ecologist Joshua Smith as director of ecology for Rigidized Metal, and he has been hard at work developing projects designed to draw ecotourists to the site.
Dirt from the reconstruction of Ohio Street has been moved in to create a new topography, on which Smith has planted foliage to attract monarch butterflies and a garden to be pollinated by a resident colony of bees. He's also cleared a sprawling meadow from the surrounding patches of mugwort.
"We think that ecotourism is something that's going to become quite a big deal," Smith said, "and Buffalo is a great place to begin this healing of the industrial grounds."
The longest natural reverb around
A note played on a piano in the Marine A grain elevator — the main attraction for performers and artists, due to the fact most of the equipment has been stripped out of it — will reverberate for at least nine seconds. Good luck achieving a natural reverb like that in your home recording studio.
During a tour, Smith demonstrated this by plunking out a pair of notes on a weathered piano in one of the silos, and the note refused to die. This quality of non-digital reverb has drawn dozens of musicians to perform in the space, including two — Bean Friend and Ralph White — who have recorded records there.
"It provides for an interesting sound and, I think, that's what makes it special. It's your own reverb thing, but it's authentic, not forced or fake," Smith said. "We've had didgeridoos and we've had double-bassoons. We had the Philharmonic trumpeteers and trombonists in here — and that will make anybody's hair stand up on their arms."
Buffalo's grain elevators inspired generations of architects
The imposing concrete structures that held so many millions of bushels of grain, were not invented in Buffalo, but they were perfected here. American, the long, white structure that forms part of a natural outdoor amphitheater, was produced using the first "monolithic pour" of concrete in history — a technique of pouring concrete foundations all at once rather than in sections — that is now universal.
What's more, the accomplished French architect Le Corbusier was so impressed with the functional simplicity and ingenuity of the structures he called them "the magnificent first fruits of a new age."
"The American engineers overwhelm with their calculations our expiring architecture," he is reported to have said. He and many of his contemporaries — Walter Gropius and others — were inspired by elevators here and in other industrial cities, which bore direct influences on the development of the International Style and 20th century modernism.
That style, practiced by European architects and predicated on unornamented and mass-produced forms, was later refracted back upon American and Buffalonian architecture — a fascinating cultural feedback loop that began where Silo City sits today.
It's fertile ground for innovation
Since the first artistic projects began materializing at Silo City around 2012, it has drawn various festivals, performance projects, experimental theater productions, concerts and unclassifiable cultural pursuits.
It's all tied up with the historic innovation of the site, Smith said. That spirit seems to live in the space, and it's something that creative Western New Yorkers seem to instantly identify with when they walk onto the campus.
"It plays to our innovation back in the day," he said. "That's what we 're hoping to drive through the arts and celebrating the culture we've got in Buffalo: [We're] trying to get that innovative spirit back and sort of why we're embarking on all this fun."