NAIOP: From Salt Storage Facility to Concert Venue

“The Morton Salt Company warehouse on Elston Avenue in Chicago once furnished tons of preservative salt for the city’s tanning industry. Today it is itself preserved — a city landmark in the process of rebirth as a concert venue combined with commercial and office space.

“The complex, containing several buildings in a 4.2-acre site along the North Branch of the Chicago River, is being transformed to contain a 30,000-square-foot indoor concert venue in the former salt storage shed, 60,000 square feet of leasable office and commercial space in what had been a three-floor packaging building, additional space in a former garage, and an outdoor performance venue in the footprint of a recently demolished second salt shed.

“The project is a collaboration between R2 Companies, Blue Star Properties and Skydeck. R2 has undertaken several conversion projects in the North Branch Industrial Corridor, including its headquarters and projects for CB2 and Passion House Coffee Roasters. R2 and Skydeck purchased the building in 2017 from Morton Salt for $15 million, with Blue Star joining as an equity owner more recently. Renovation work has cost roughly $40 million since.

“The Morton Salt complex was designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the Chicago architectural firm responsible for notable structures in the city such as Union Station, the Shedd Aquarium and the Wrigley Building. It was built between 1929 and 1930 as the company’s main Chicago storage and distribution center. The site along the river was chosen to provide easy barge, rail and road access. It launched amid the city’s golden age of agricultural processing uses, initially to provide salt for tanning operations nearby, and it continued to provide salt for many other purposes for 80 years. In later decades, it produced considerable amounts of rock salt for road de-icing. The Morton Salt Girl and the company’s famous ‘When it rains, it pours’ logo have been replicated on the roof.

“Matt Crawford, a coordinating planner at the Historic Preservation Division of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said it’s been an iconic building for decades. ‘Morton Salt is certainly one of the most visible of our industrial buildings. It’s very visible from the Kennedy Expressway and a commuter rail line.’

“Golden said he found the initial condition of the site both challenging and inspiring. ‘It was in the original abandoned state. It was full of machinery and steel and lifts and things they left there. We were pulling stuff out of there for a year, as well as mounds and mounds of salt — it was packed with salt.’

“Rusted-out equipment and enough salt to provide decades of margaritas aren’t exactly workable theater decor, but the development team was intent on keeping as much of the site as was viable. According to Golden, the aim was ‘showing the life it had in the past, where you can see the layers of what happened in the ‘20s to the ‘50s to the ‘70s, and this is what we did — while putting in all-new mechanicals so that it operates as a functionally new building.’

“The developers sought landmark status from the city for the complex, which was granted in 2021. They intended to make as much use of the site as possible. The former East storage shed, condemned by the city, was largely demolished in 2020, but the rest of the buildings are being renovated. (Paletta, NAIOP, Fall 2022)


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