The monumental grain terminal
“Mountainous silos, incredibly space-conscious, but creating space.
A random confusion amidst the chaos of loading and unloading corn ships, of railways and bridges, crane monsters with live gestures, hordes of silo cells in concrete, stone and glazed brick. Then suddenly a silo with administrative buildings, closed horizontal fronts against the stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred cylinders, and all this in the sharp evening light.
I took photographs like mad. Everything else so far now seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams.”
– Erich Mendelsohn, a German architect, upon visiting Buffalo’s grain terminals in 1924.
The red hook grain terminal was built in 1922, and its mission was simple: help reinvigorate use of the New York State Canal System, and help New York City’s grain trade compete with places like Chicago and New Orleans. After 2.5 million dollars(adjusted for inflation, around $35 million today) and 16 months of labor, canal shipping was still on a steady decline, and it was clear that the terminal would end up a failed gamble. In the 1950’s, things went from bad to worse. The St. Lawrence Seaway allowed ships from the Great Lakes to reach the Atlantic, and local unions kept labor costs so high that it became uneconomical for companies to ship through the city. The end finally came in 1965, and the terminal has stood abandoned ever since.
A machine, unused for a very long time
While the terminal never made back its initial investment, it did leave behind an architectural legacy. There was a long held rule in architecture that everything, even industrial buildings, had to be somewhat aesthetically pleasing. On old factories, you’ll see features like arched windows and ornate brickwork, at least some effort to include form in a functional structure. The grain terminal, however, disregarded the conventional idea of form completely. It was built entirely with function in mind. No element of this structure was made to please the eye.
There is nothing conventionally beautiful about the terminal. It is entirely made from harsh, bare concrete.
However, many people found beauty in this new style of architecture. Architects like Mendelsohn saw the massive, geometric terminal as a testament to modernity: invoking feelings of grandeur, stoicism, and industrial might. Grain terminals were considered by some to be the new equivalent of the pyramids, huge, geometric, and monumental. Terminals like this one inspired the styles of modernism and brutalism, and their influence can be seen reaching into the modern era.
A cathedral to industrial might
Grain Terminal is in no way an easy place to visit. The grounds are patrolled by security, and they supposedly catch people attempting to get in a few times a week. While the cops usually just issue warnings, jail time for those who get caught trespassing here does happen. If you go at low tide, be prepared to get wet. If you go at all, be prepared to get caught.
It’s been a long time since this old ship went to sea
A machine that once moved along rails on the floor
Pipes, chains, and other fixtures on the ceiling
For having been abandoned so long, the grain terminal is in good condition. There is some collapse though.
The function of the chute has been long since forgotten