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Salt Shed exterior

The Salt Shed, located at 1357 N. Elston Ave., utilizes the iconic former Morton Salt plant as a music venue.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

What’s That Building? The Salt Shed

The former Morton Salt warehouse reopened as a music venue in 2022.

This Chicago music venue opened in 2022 — but as the giant letters on the roof and the image of a girl with an umbrella make clear, the building used to be part of Morton Salt.

The letters and image were painted in a different form when Morton first built the structure in 1929, and a later version was still there in 2022 when it reopened as a concert venue.

morton salt facility

The sign on the former Morton Salt warehouse is a familiar sight for many Chicagoans who have passed by it on the Kennedy Expressway.

WBEZ

It’s unusual for a salt warehouse to become a concert venue, but when you look at this cavernous building, it almost couldn’t have become anything else. It almost seems prescient, as if the original architects designed the space with its future as a music venue in mind.

Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden, co-partners in 16" on Center, the Chicago hospitality firm that took the building through the transition, told WBEZ’s Reset they kept as much of the original material as possible — the floors, the ceilings, the walls while adding bathrooms, bars and other necessary elements.

“What we’ve tried to do is keep the shed itself, so when you walk in you know you’re in an old salt shed,” Golden said.

Like countless Chicagoans, these two have known the building, or at least its sign, for most of their lives. They have vivid memories of “coming down to the city and driving by this place as kids and then as adults,” Finkelman said. “We went from it would be cool to do something inside to the opportunity to make it a reality.”

Morton Salt announced in 2015 it would close the building, where 23 people were employed, but wanted the structure preserved.

When the company sold the 4.25-acre site to R2 Companies for $15 million in 2017, Morton’s CEO told the Chicago Tribune that “we took care to find the right firm to help bring our vision to life.”

In other words, don’t wipe this building off the landscape. R2 and Blue Star Properties later contracted with 16" on Center to adaptively reuse the site as the Salt Shed.

“It made sense for us geographically,” said Finkelman, who also owns Thalia Hall in Pilsen, the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village and Space in Evanston. “We have a pipeline of venues to seat anywhere from 50 to 1,000 people, and now we have an additional space to kind of work and grow with the artists.”

Some aspects of the building lent themselves well to hosting music performances.

Salt Shed interior

The lobby and main entrance of the Salt Shed.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

“It was certainly a big, clear span,” as the space had been designed to contain 20-ton mountains of salt, Golden said. “But it was certainly a challenge. When we started talking about doing what we do in here, music performances, we kind of needed a little more backup.”

The pair brought in architect Aric Lasher and his firm, HBRA Architects, to design the conversion.

“When they showed us a 3D model,” Golden said, “they showed us that even though it didn’t look very accommodating, that it could happen. Silly as we are, we spent the next four years doing it.”

The outdoor section along the North Branch is known as the Fairground, where there was a second, smaller salt shed that was demolished for the transition. The partners say an unanticipated element of bringing that river frontage back to life is that a lot of people on boats stop to hear the music. People come by kayak, canoe and power boat.

“We’re against this really beautiful waterway that really makes the Fairground great, and it pretty organically started off that people would show up for the concerts, and as the night went on you would see the river filling up with boats,” Golden said. “I imagine now there are people planning their water visits to Chicago around their favorite performer and trying to figure out if there’s a better way to see them — instead of from our Fairground, from the water.

“And I hope that in the years to come, we’ll have a dock and be able to do even more stuff out there.”

The partners say they’re proud of the transformation.

“We’re also fans of the music, so we come in and go, ‘This is how I would like to see shows,’ ” Golden said. “It gives us joy to have been able to mold it into this.”

Their work with HBRA stands on the shoulders of the Salt Shed’s original architects, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. One of the biggest architecture firms in Chicago for decades, they also designed Union Station, the Wrigley Building, the Merchandise Mart and, in 1927, just before building this for Morton, a corporate headquarters for the company on Washington Street in the Loop. It’s likely that’s why Morton turned to them to build a storage facility to replace one it had at the mouth of the Chicago River.

Morton would be bringing in 5,000 tons of salt at a time, and that’s not just for table salt. The company also made salt for leather tanneries and food storage, and around the time this warehouse was built another line of business was growing fast as the use of cars exploded: road salt for winter safety.

From the boats that pulled up alongside the salt sheds, the salt went onto conveyor belts to be carried inside and poured down onto the floor. A pile of loose salt like that is going to spread at the bottom, and the walls have to be built in such a way that they can contain it. The architects designed the walls with footings that go down into concrete and with braces to hold the sides in as the salt presses out.

It worked. Built in 1929, the walls were inviolable for 85 years — until 2015, when the salt was reportedly piled too high, created too much pressure and burst through one wall. News photos from the time show the salt engulfing cars at the Acura dealership next door.

MORTON-CST-123114-007.JPG

Employees of McGrath Acura taking photos of the cars that got partly buried by salt when the Morton Salt building next door collapsed.

Michael Schmidt/Chicago Sun-Times

There’s a new roof, but the lacework of joists that hang above the space is all original. It’s very intricate because it had to hold the structure together. There could be no walls inside the storage area for support, so everything has to be supported by the roof and the side walls against all that pressure from the piles of salt.

From the concert floor, you can see a monitor at the top of the roof, sort of like a birdhouse set on top of the roof. It was here for ventilation, to let air move up and out. Below that would be the conveyor belt crossing the top of the space to drop salt down into the warehouse.

Salt Shed interior concert seats

The concert seating inside the Salt Shed.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

Now that space is filled with rows and rows of concert seats where once there were twenty-ton mountains of salt.

From a balcony overlooking the Fairground, the view east to the skyline is pretty remarkable. If you look a couple miles east and find Jeanne Gang’s St. Regis tower on the Chicago River and the next few buildings to its east, you’re looking at approximately where Morton Salt’s storage facility was before this one was built in 1929.

Salt Shed balcony view

The view of the Chicago skyline from the Salt Shed Fairground.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

The salt company dates to 1848 in Chicago under another name. Originally all the salt was imported from New York. Joy Morton came to Chicago from Nebraska in 1880 at age 25 and bought into the company, then bought several more salt companies to build a national leader in the business.

From 1888 onward, Morton’s firm used a dock called Illinois Central Pier #1, immediately south of the mouth of the Chicago River, where there’s a bike path now.

They were still there in the 1920s when the city wanted to build what was then called the Link Bridge to connect the north and south pieces of what’s now DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

Morton agreed to move out of the way. Moving to the site on Elston Avenue put Morton in the midst of Chicago’s concentration of about two dozen leather and hide tanning companies, many of which were buying its salt.

Bringing salt up the river to this site was often the job of a boat called the Jupiter, which was reportedly the biggest boat working the river in some seasons. It was bringing 5,000 tons of salt at a time.

Concertgoers can still see the steel structure that was part of the conveyor belt system carrying salt off the Jupiter and other boats and into the two salt sheds.

When the present owners bought the site, it turned out that the smaller shed, on the east side closer to the river, was badly corroded and difficult to save. Taking that one down was a necessity that paved the way for a terrific amenity, the Fairground, with a breathtaking view of the city’s skyline.

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.

K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @true_chicago.

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