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The Toughest Re-Use: Grain Elevators

The Toughest Re-Use: Grain Elevators
Flickr/DevinF

"Thus we have the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent first-fruits of the new age." 

Le Corbusier wrote this in his 1923 collection of essays, Towards a New Architecture, in admiration of the painfully rational, utilitarian structures that are grain elevators.

Originally invented in the 1840s, the first grain elevators were wood-framed structures, making them prone to setting on fire. The ones LeCorbusier would have seen in the early 20th century were steel-framed structures built with concrete, a method that has kept so many of them standing as testaments to a bygone era.

Economies evolve, as do the buildings they once supported. As old ports and new shipping routes changed cities, many grain elevators emptied out. As great as they were at storing grain, however, they don't typically make for easy redevelopment.

Developers and city officials are forced to be more creative than usual when determining new uses for these grain elevators. Unlike old office buildings and factories, conversions are especially complicated- the typical grain elevator is windowless, tall enough to define a skyline, and contains only a ground floor.

Buffalo has more grain elevators than it knows what to do with now that its relevance as a grain shipment port has diminished. The local General Mills plant still churns out Cheerios, but many of its neighbors sit unused, with some already succumbing to the wrecking ball.

But perhaps the decline and subsequent lack of redevelopment for Buffalo's grain elevators will tell the most honest story of the country's industrial boom. Untouched by postmodern revisions of industrial spaces, these structures serve as brutally honest examples of the grain elevator's reason for existence and the era it represented. 

That type of message gets blurred at a place like Baltimore's Silo Point, a stunning, luxury housing development that incorporates elements of the industrial facility that it reinvented. Located in Locust Point, a historically working class community, Silo Point hosts some of the most expensive real estate in the city (a penthouse unit goes for $2.5 million), towering over small row houses and a massive rail and port infrastructure that reminds locals of its more brawny days.

The Gold Medal Flour grain elevator in Minneapolis. Image courtesy Flickr user dbrekke

In Minneapolis, Jean Nouvel's 2006 Guthrie Theatre and the Mill City Museum envelop the Gold Medal Flour grain elevator, its yellow sign serving as a civic icon. While all the pieces blend into one well defined district, the grain elevator is in danger. Repairs are underway to stabilize the more than a century old building. The city is extremely aware of its cultural significance and even though an adaptive re-use might not be in the works for now, efforts to keep it around are still present.

A successful re-use doesn't always have to result in conventional occupancy though. In 2008, a substantially sized grain elevator in Quebec City known as the Bunge was used as a giant screen for a series of shows to celebrate the city's 400th anniversary. Well received among locals, it is still used for artistic lighting at night and has made noise around architectural circles globally.

Below, a look at some of North America's grain elevators that are seeing new life.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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