Fire, ice and now demolition: Saga ends for historic South Side warehouse

January 28, 2013

As a demolition crew clears the site of last week's spectacular five-alarm McKinley Park warehouse fire, the South Side loses yet another building--and the city loses another top-flight example of its renowned architecture and urban planning. 
 
The five-story warehouse at 3757 S. Ashland Ave.--images of it ablaze, then sheathed in ice last week were seen around the world--was built in 1919 as the Pullman Couch Company. It was once one of the key buildings in the nation's first industrial park: The Central Manufacturing District, a sprawling, privately planned, owned and developed campus of factories, warehouses and other buildings that stretched from Morgan St. to Western Ave. and from 35th St. to Pershing Rd.

The CMD sold off the buildings in the 1960s and many of its old structures have for years sat empty or underutilized. But the CMD buildings, with their brickwork, graceful proportions and nicely-rendered terra cotta detailing, represent a rather fine rank of industrial architecture and campus planning.

Here's what the once-handsome Pullman Couch building looked like when it opened, courtesy of the University of Minnesota's stellar archive of images from the American Terra Cotta Company. It should have taken something other than fire, ice and now demolition for these buildings to get our attention:

I visited the warehouse with my camera last Thursday and Friday to document the ice-covered building (firefighters were there, putting out flames that rekindled two days after the blaze) and the start of its demolition. But beneath the ice and beyond the wrecking equipment, glimpses of the 108-year-old structure's beauty remained visible. The building was designed by architect S. Scott Joy, who did 14 major CMD buildings, including its powerhouse:
Here you can see the Pullman Couch Company insignia in the frozen-over terra cotta detail:
For hours on Thursday, the Chicago Fire Department's powerful vintage douser, "Big Mo," shot a continuous stream of water across the two-lane Ashland Avenue bridge and straight into the building's fourth floor:Another CMD building, the former Union Bag & Paper Company, 3737 S. Ashland, is seen in the photo below. Built in 1915, the structure was also designed by S. Scott Joy. It is also vacant:
The Central Manufacturing District was a bustling concern from 1905 until the late 1960s. Big name companies such as retailer Spiegel, Goodyear, Starck Piano Co., the William Wrigley Co., Westinghouse and furniture makers, oil refiners and others located there, taking advantage of shared costs of services provided by the CMD--not to mention its prime location on rail lines and on the Chicago River's South Branch.

Its development predates General Electric's 90-acre Nela Park in East Cleveland, OH, which has long billed itself as the nation's first industrial park.  Nela Park construction began in 1911, but the CMD's first buildings appeared in 1905.

The CMD had its own police force, fire department, powerhouse, telegraph office, executive club, freight rail station, banks-even architects who could design buildings for companies locating there.
But the age of the buildings and the midcentury city-to-suburban migration of workers and companies, spelled the end of the CMD and the buildings and land were sold-off individually.
 
The industrial park--born on the streets of Chicago--became a staple of suburbia. And as the warehouse fire shows, complex that made it all possible has struggled since.