July 27, 2021
The Transformation of Silo City Signals a New Future for Buffalo
The ongoing renovation of the iconic site includes ambitious residential and public projects.
Enough time has passed to revisit the infrastructure of the American Rust Belt. Whether it be Detroit, Cleveland, or Buffalo, the relics of bygone prosperity and gilded hedonism have long charmed today’s architecture buffs. for many, the poetic scattering of mammoth abandoned structures across vast urban landscapes translates to sculptural grandiosity and important glimpses into the past.
“For my father’s generation, Silo City was a symbol of failure and bad decisions, but young people are in awe of its magnificence—their new eyes see its potential,” says Rick Smith, a Buffalo local who purchased the city’s iconic defunct grain elevator compound in 2006. Sitting on the edge of Lake Erie, the six-part campus of dwarfing concrete silos rise from the ground like towers of a dystopian landscape.
When Silo City was built in 1906 during Buffalo’s heyday as a grain port and flour milling hub of the American Malting Corporation, the city prospered to unparalleled wealth. The geographically advantageous location by Niagara Falls and the Erie Canal helped Buffalo become the first American city with widespread electricity—this prompted the construction of groundbreaking architecture. The construction of Silo City’s American Grain Elevator in 1906 was the first pouring of monolithic concrete in the country.
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St. Lawrence Seaway’s easing of commercial transportation in and out of the United States in the middle of 20th century, however, ignited Buffalo’s, and Silo City’s, gradual fall. The structure’s enduring charisma today stems from its grotesquely utilitarian design which served for the function of elevating grain through 120-foot-tall silos. Decades after they were deprived of purpose, the towers reflect this complex history and now attract visitors at growing numbers.
“I don’t like master plans,” Smith says to explain his slowly evolving vision for the compound. Construction is also a daytime job for the developer who is the third-generation owner of the local engineered metal company, Rigidized Metal Corporation. His revival project started a decade ago through cultural programing which has included guided tours, art installations inside the silos, a reading series, as well as a restaurant. From locals attending the City of Night festival to architecture students from China, visitors have been curiously stomping the grounds.
Residential, however, is the next and most ambitious part of Smith’s outlook for his investment. The first phase, which will transform the American Mill Warehouse building into a 168-unit complex, is anticipated to open in the summer of 2022. Built in 1906 as a mill and storage for American Malting Company, the eight-story structure is being revived with a $65 million budget and an adaptive reuse philosophy which, according to the project’s architect Peter Lang, is still a foreign concept in American architecture. “Our ‘Lincoln Log Cabin’ type approach to historic sites has prevented reinterpretation of historic architecture,” he says.
Silo City was a part of Lang’s thesis project at Penn State University in 2007. “During a semester in Europe, I firsthand witnessed the European understanding of passing history through renovation while respecting the existing fabric,” he says. The local architect’s balancing of the past with contemporary residential needs includes keeping certain industrial accents, such as turbines or railcars, exposed and preserving the distressed steel, concrete, and brick elements. “You might have a wheel hanging above your kitchen counter or a gear sitting in your living room,” Lang says to exemplify the synthesis.
Adapting the building’s silos to a new program is still an ongoing debate for Smith and Lang. While few small internal tubes will be used as artifacts, the forty-eight silos propose a challenge with their round, windowless forms. Heatherwick Studio’s transformation of Cape Town’s grain silos into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in 2017 has been an inspiration, but between financial feasibility and adhering to The State Historic Preservation Office’s regulations, the team is still in search of a solution.
The second phase, which will convert the Perot Malthouse into a ninety-two-unit residential and cultural center, will also include green space and waterfront access. The construction at the five-story red brick building is scheduled to start next summer for a late 2023 opening. “I hope to see Buffalo Philharmonic play there,” Smith says about the phase, which he notes “will be more in tune with the public.” The building for the third phase is yet to be determined, but the plan is to start construction in late 2024.
The imposing presence of Silo City was a backdrop for both Smith and Lang while growing up during Buffalo’s dire socioeconomic chapter in the last few decades. “As a teenager who skipped school and ran there, I was never aware of its architectural marvel,” remembers Lang. He considers a growing tech sector, vicinity to different medical campuses, as well as returning expats, as opportunities for the site’s future phases. For Smith, a slow pace in his plans allows them the ability to explore how the new generation understands history. “We are taking our time to let the public slowly rediscover Silo City,” he says and promises: “When completed, it’ll be in better shape than I found it.”
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