When it was built in Chicago’s meatpacking district at the start of the 1920s, Fulton Market Cold Storage Company was touted as “an example of the very highest development in cold storage warehouse design.”
IMAGE: Fulton Market Cold Storage Company advertisement from 1921, featured in California Fruit News, Volume 64, Issue 1722.
At the time, the natural ice trade was losing ground fast to the wonders of mechanical refrigeration, as the technology became more reliable and its costs came down. The Fulton Market Cold Storage Company’s proximity to railway lines and its imposing structure — an architectural hybrid of bank and armoury — were enough to overcome most doubters, although the ammonia absorption system then in use was prone to leaks and explosions, hence the advertisement’s insistence that the building is fireproof and fitted with automatic sprinkling systems.
IMAGE: Butter at Fulton Market Cold Storage plant, 1941. Photo by John Vachon, via the Library of Congress.
Today, those ten storeys served by fast elevators are an obstacle to profitable cold storage operation, rather than an asset. Refrigerated warehouses make their money on turnover, and the extra time and labour required to load and stack individual boxes of chilled foods, as opposed to fork-lifting standardised pallets onto racks, cuts into a profit margin that is already suffering from the higher energy costs that come along with an old, patchworked-together cooling system and less efficient insulation.
IMAGE: Eggs in storage at Fulton Market Cold Storage, 1941. Photo by John Vachon, via the Library of Congress.
IMAGE: Fulton Market Cold Storage Company. Photo by Brule Laker.
Last July, Fulton Market Cold Storage Company decided it was time to start afresh, selling its iconic building and moving to a fully racked and bar-coded warehouse with plenty of truck parking, out in suburban Lyons. The new owners, developers Sterling Bay, released glossy renderings, and rumours spread that Google might move into the new office space.
IMAGE: Fulton Market Cold Storage redevelopment renderings via Curbed Chicago.
Before work could start on the makeover, however, the building had to be defrosted. Nine decades of cold storage, combined with a lack of maintenance as the building ran at one-third capacity over the last five years, had left its interior encrusted with ice.
Architects Perkins + Will, who are turning two floors into a machine shop, workspace, and indoor cycling track for a bike gear company, posted some astonishing “before” photographs alongside a timelapse video made by the developers as they brought in propane heaters to dissolve the building’s delicate crystalline surfaces and jagged icicles.
The images are utterly breathtaking, framing the inverted winter that is our national cryosphere as an enchanted, sparkling grotto, rather than the gleaming aseptic geometries of contemporary logistics space.