But enter the inner bowels of the abandoned Marine A grain elevator — dating from 1925, it’s among the largest of Buffalo‘s 14 extant concrete behemoths — and the little that is bucolic disappears entirely.
Cavernous corridors reach as far as the eye can see. Up above, a similar but more conical volume, stretches some 140 feet. Take a step, and the echo reverbs for about nine seconds.
This is Rick Smith’s turf and he’s had big plans for it ever since acquiring four such structures (for about $40,000 each) from ConAgra seven years ago.
Since much of the infrastructure left behind was too decayed for new industrial uses, he says he “started playing around with notions of design, theater, and innovation.
Marine A is an example. Hundreds of ping pong balls drift in mid-air suspended on nylon cord from the ceiling. An installation by an art student at the University of Buffalo, “it has something to do with the clusters of violent crimes in various areas of the United States,” says Smith.
Mostly, it looks pretty.
In the middle of the final silo, another student from the university, has installed a stingray-shaped concrete form covered in fabric and pierced by several holes.
To see it from all aspects means clamoring into a neighboring chamber where dangling pieces of machinery loom in darkened corners. Their sharp claws lunge, eager to snatch at skirt corners, their rusted railings rise, ready to snag pants legs.
Back here, it’s airless and eerily silent — a perfect setting for the trombone quartet that Smith once arranged to entertain a sold-out crowd.
“For me, this is all about finding ways to activate the space,” he says. “And about getting these kids to stay here and to see that there’s opportunities for them here.”
One thing he’s not that interested in: preservation. “It’s great to have these vestiges and to keep them intact,” he says. “But to limit them to a ‘this has to be a museum’ concept would be counterproductive. It wouldn’t be the highest and best use.”
A local character who owns Rigidized Metals, a steel fabricator not far from here, Smith sports a full mustache, drives a ’73 Oldsmobile he calls “Big Green,” and is seldom seen without a cowboy hat. The elevators’ history means a lot to him, it’s easy to see.
“At their height during the 1920s, the elevators stored 29 million sacks of flour,” he says. “That’s more than those of the next largest concentrations, in Minneapolis and Kansas City, combined.”
But it’s the possibility of the new that speaks to him most.
Recently, when he discovered a beehive on the site, he challenged graduate students at the university’s school of architecture to come up with a solution. Their answer: “Elevator B,” a 22-foot tower of stainless steel (supplied by Rigidized) shaped to echo the hexagonal form of a honeycomb cell.
To step into the narrow structure, “you have to copy the motion of entering the grain elevators,” points out Courtney Creenan, who co-designed and built the piece with Scott Selin. Only, in this case, when a visitor peers up, she’s greeted by a cypress vitrine swarming with the relocated bees.
While 20 or 30 curiosity-seekers may stop by each weekend, Smith says much of what he calls “Silo City” is reserved for special events, thanks to insurance concerns. Next up: the second annual “City of Night” in August, which present evening audio-visual performances at the site. There’s even talk of a “mustache museum” and rock-climbing.
“The magnitude of this campus is huge,” Smith says. “I’m trying to take clues from what the site wants to become. It’s taken me six years to get my arms around the place,” he continues. ” At first, I was, like, ‘I can fix this, and we then can do that’. Now, I’m not in any hurry.”