Revitalization is a crucial part of nature: the regrowth of forests after a fire, a green spring after the dead of winter. The City of Buffalo is no exception. Along the banks of the Buffalo River, the gargantuan bones of grain silos speak to the prosperity of a bygone era. After several decades, life is returning to these massive structures both at Silo City and the Silos at Elk Street.
Rick Smith, third-generation president of Rigidized Metals, first became interested in the Buffalo Outer Harbor property that is now Silo City because it neighbors Rigidized which was expanding. When he realized the property was available in 2006, he purchased it, in no small part for the Buffalo community, as well as to put the iconic silos in local hands once again. But what to do with 100-year-old grain silos over 190 feet tall?
“I didn’t know what in the world we were going to do with them, but they are kind of the cornerstones of what Buffalo is,” explained Smith. “They are one of the things that are special and unique to Buffalo. They have authenticity. What would Buffalo be without these grain elevators?”
Ultimately, Smith felt that Silo City should be a place of gathering, of art, a space in which to find inspiration and to create, bringing back the regenerative power of the human spirit. “We have to start by the water and get back to the water. Everything starts by the water,” he said, noting the silos themselves point to the waterfront.
Artists of all kinds—painters, theatre performers, national-recognized spoken word poets, sculptors, installations by UB students (Elevator B beehive), musicians, and many others answered Silo City’s call. “All around are spaces, and artists have started collaborating and doing mash-ups,” shared Smith. Even the name of Silo City bar, Duende, inspired by Garcia Lorca, means the magic of art. “Silo City is a catalyst instead of always wanting to be the artist; it is the place. That is what makes it special. We do not want to be the art; we just want to be the conduit.”
Smith has spent over 15 years working on Silo City, from its unassuming entrance to its Riddle Sticks boundary sculpture. “You cannot take on a project this big right away,” he explained. “You have to eat slowly, digest, make sure you listen to the artists who come here, listen to the architects…feel which is the best direction.”
Silo City’s direction would not be complete without recognizing its Native American (Haudenosaunee) heritage and healing the landscape. “This is Do Sho Ma, land for people,” Smith stated, explaining that Josh Smith, Director of Ecology, does a magnificent job of restoring native plants, making habitats for native animals, helping nature clean itself, and more. Many animals now call the property home, including a variety of birds. Silo City natural spaces like The Meadow and the Trellis are absolute triumphs.
Today, Silo City is still growing. Everywhere, there are hidden “packageways” with artistic surprises and unexpected installations and structures, starting with a very Alice in Wonderland piece that Smith calls, “his only artistic contribution:” The Door to Everywhere. It embodies his hope that Silo City will be a very global place, also realized in Silo City’s soccer field for refugees. Work is underway to turn some silos into develop residential housing at Silo City as well as additional art spaces.
“The fun is to get everyone down here,” Smith concluded. “This is everybody’s spot. We are really lucky to be able to do this.”
Standing only a few minutes from the banks of the Buffalo River are the Silos at Elk Street, an historic malt house and multi-silo structure. Last operational in 1986, the building sat derelict for about 30 years before it sparked local interest. Today, an award-winning design company, Young + Wright Architectural, is bringing new life, both to the structure as well as the business community.
The first portion of the Elk Street malting house and silos was built just before the turn of the century in 1898 when Buffalo’s beer industry was booming. The malt house specifically oversaw the malting process for turning barley into malt which it then sold to local beer companies. Moving into the 20th century, the malthouse, then owned by F. A. Dole, added four round silos before it was sold. It then became the Kreiner Leher malt house in 1910. Kreiner Leher constructed an additional 6 square silos at a cost of what would be approximately $2.6 million today. The business was sold to the Buffalo Malting Company and ran from 1975 until 1986.
In 2015, the now Silos at Elk St. were sold at auction and purchased by Shawn Wright and Jerry Young, Partners of Young + Wright Architectural. Rising to the challenge while getting the silos on the Historic Registry, Young & Wright created—and continue to create—modern, innovative spaces, not only for the firm’s offices but for others, as well. One such business, Cove & Mill Barbering Company, were quick to see the beautifully renovated space as an incredible opportunity.
The barbershop, owned and operated by Master Barber Oral Roberts, is ideally located, sitting at the corner of several Revitalization neighborhoods such as Larkinville, the Hydraulics Community, the Old First Ward, and the Valley. It is little wonder, then, that Cove & Mill attracts a very diverse crowd, something very important to Oral. “I am all about diversity,” he shared. “People sit in the chair and ask me questions they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking other people. I am in a great position to answer, explain, and learn.”
These conversations are very relaxed as guests enjoy comfortable red captain’s chairs, calypso music, and exceptional service. Along with its “good vibes” and relaxed atmosphere, Cove & Mill draws people in with Oral’s high standards when it comes to his grooming services, which include both classic and modern haircuts, beard treatments and even facials. Realizing early in his career that traditional hours were not sufficient, Oral started staying open late. In fact, Cove & Mill is often open until 10PM. “We are open when other barbershops have already closed for the day.”
As an entrepreneur and a minority-owned business, he upholds the shop’s motto... “Great Place. Great people. One-of-a-kind experience.” And what a unique location it is for a small business. “We are in this beautiful building while providing these amazing services with authenticity. You get a historical experience when you come here, not just a haircut.”