Continental Can Company Building
Architect: Samuel Scott Joy
Address: 3815 S. Ashland Avenue
Style: Industrial Vernacular
Neighborhoods: Central Manufacturing District McKinley Park
Architect: John Metcalf (civil engineer),
Address: 2860 S. Damen Ave.
Style: Industrial Vernacular
Neighborhoods: McKinley Park
Fisk Power Station
Architect: Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge
Address: 1111 W. Cermak Road
OVERVIEW: Continental Can Building:
In 2022, plans were announced to demolish of one of the most prominent buildings in the Central Manufacturing District’s Original East District (CMD East)—the Continental Can Building at 3815 S. Ashland Avenue—for the construction of a new cold storage facility. The historic structure, notable for its Gothic terra cotta detailing and eye-catching tower, was designed by the district’s then-in-house architect, Samuel Scott Joy, and completed in 1920.
For over half a century, it housed manufacturing operations for the Continental Can Company, a longstanding and important business that was a major force in the world of packaging throughout the 20th century. The building was also a major visual anchor of the CMD East’s Ashland corridor since its completion. Its tower, once one of many in the CMD East designed by Joy, is now the last remaining of its kind in the district.
The demolition of this lovely Gothic terra cotta building and tower would be a terrible loss for the CMD East and, more broadly, the Southwest Side’s industrial heritage. Preservation Chicago encourages the developer to pursue an adaptive reuse of the Continental Can Building, especially the Ashland Avenue tower and facade.
Located in both the Bridgeport and McKinley Park neighborhoods on the city’s Southwest Side, the Central Manufacturing District’s Original East District (CMD East), is today recognized as an especially important site in the history of Chicago: the first planned industrial park in the United States.
The Central Manufacturing District’s Original East District was designed over the course of decades by numerous acclaimed Chicago architects, ad offered manufacturers the opportunity to own a custom-built warehouse with front-door access to rail lines and waterways, as well as city services and banking. It was a pioneering undertaking and what is left of the district stands today as a symbol of the great might of industrial Chicago.
The decades since the dissolution of the Central Manufacturing District have seen the disintegration of the district’s many historic industrial buildings. While many remain, some of the district’s grandest structures of the have been demolished due to neglect or redevelopment, prompting Preservation Chicago to name the CMD East District as one of Chicago’s 7 Most Endangered in 2021.
HISTORY: Continental Can Building:
The CMD East was founded in 1902 by Frederick H. Prince, owner of the Chicago Junction Railway (CJR), and A.G. Leonard, president of the nearby Union Stock Yards Company. Built on farmland, the district was seen by Prince as a way to protect and increase his share of freight traffic while also creating a brand-new development that could offer amenities never before enjoyed by Chicago’s industrial powers. If a manufacturer chose to relocate their facilities to the CMD East, they would have operated out of a newly-built warehouse, constructed to their custom needs by an in-house architect. Over the decades, important Chicago architects like Alfred S. Alschuler, Samuel Scott Joy, and Abraham Epstein all designed structures for the CMD East, creating a pocket of industrial architecture defined by cohesive visual beauty. The CMD East also made other amenities available to its tenants including electric wiring, postal delivery, street cleaning, telegraphic connections, private water lines, fire safety, private centralized banking, and even a social club.
The district attracted numerous high-profile businesses over the decades, including the William Wrigley Company, the Walgreen Company, Standard Sanitary, Spiegel, Westinghouse Electric, Sears Roebuck, Goldblatt’s, Procter & Gamble, Sylvania, the Glidden Company, the Oppenheimer Casing Company, Jewel Food Stores, and the Larkin Soap Company. While many of these businesses came and went as the district grew throughout the 20th century, one manufacturer stayed in their custom-built design for over a half-century beginning in 1920: Continental Can Company.
Continental Can Company was founded in 1904 by Edwin Norton and T.G. Cranwell. By the 1910s, the company had already found great success as a leading producer of metal cans with headquarters in both Chicago and Syracuse. However, as the company’s operations expanded, they opted to open a new site in the CMD East. By this time, the prestige and appeal of the CMD East had been well-established, meaning that Continental Can Company’s new tenancy there symbolized a declaration of their legitimacy and manufacturing power.
Their new warehouse was designed by the CMD East’s then-district architect, Samuel Scott Joy. Joy, it could be argued, was the architect most responsible for defining the overall look of the CMD East, as well as the adjacent CMD Pershing Road. His designs were often large-scale brick warehouses with Gothic terra cotta trim. Joy’s buildings in the CMD East employed an imposing sense of scale and grandeur, often featured a single defining feature: a tower several floors taller than the warehouse from which it rose. Joy was responsible for several of these warehouses and towers in the CMD East, including the American Ever-Ready Works Building (demolished in 2015), the John Magnus Building (year of demolition unknown), and the P.A. Starck Piano Company Building (year of demolition unknown). Today, the Continental Can Building is the only remaining Joy-designed tower in the CMD East.
The Continental Can Building is an exemplar of Joy’s typical warehouse design. It is fitted with Gothic terra cotta detailing, most notably in the window tracery found along the tower’s uppermost floor. Its main entrance is also of note, using heavy terra cotta details to create a surround that suggests a church or university rather than a warehouse. Comparisons of the building today to 1920 renderings of the structure indicate that the building was constructed as planned and has retained an incredible amount of its original architectural integrity.
Continental Can Company remained at this site until the late 1970s. During its time there, Continental Can Company grew from the second largest producer of metal cans in the United States to the first. They were a resilient manufacturer, expanding their business throughout the Great Depression, with a robust workforce that numbered 12,000 during the economic crisis. They were also a pioneer of new types of canning products, such as cap-sealed beer cans which the company claimed in 1935 would keep out “flavor-robbing light,” while still opening like a regular bottle top. Not only a producer of cans, Continental Can Company also manufactured paper and fiber containers, bottle caps, and can-sealing machinery that could then be leased to other businesses.
By the early 1970s, Continental Can Company’s annual sales had risen to $2 billion and, in 1976, it was absorbed into the Continental Group, a packaging conglomerate, with other remaining operations were acquired by the Chicago-based U.S. Can Company in the 1980s.
THREAT: Continental Can Building:
When Preservation Chicago listed the CMD East as one of its Chicago 7 Most Endangered in 2021, we specifically noted that the Continental Can Building had been owned since 2003 by Avgeris and Associates, a Chicagoland real estate developer. Avgeris & Associates were also the former owners of the 32-acre site at the corner of W. 35th Street and S. Ashland Avenue which once contained the large-scale Wrigley Company factory building as well the Larkin Building, both of which were eventually demolished for an Amazon distribution center and parking lot. We expressed concern that, under the same ownership, the Continental Can Building would soon face a similar threat of demolition.
In 2022, cold storage developers Karis Cold announced plans to demolish the entirety of the Continental Can Building, replacing it with a nearly-100,000 square foot cold storage warehouse. The Ashland-facing façade of the new development would be completely windowless, although the developers have expressed an interest in commissioning local artists to install a sculpture and mural along this corridor as a beautification tactic, as well as plant trees in front of this new structure. Karis Cold said preservation was considered as an option, but demolition was ultimately favored due to graffiti, structural weakness, and lot size.
If the Continental Can Building is razed as planned, the Ashland corridor of the CMD East will be further diminished, leaving only three structures remaining on what was once a grand stretch of some of the most exceptional industrial architecture in Chicago. Furthermore, the tower of the Continental Can Building is the last Joy-designed tower standing in the CMD East and, if demolished, will represent the permanent loss of this particular architectural typology within the district.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Continental Can Building:
To solve the immediately pressing issue of the potential demolition of the Continental Can Building, Preservation Chicago asks that Karis Cold pursue an adaptive reuse approach to the creation of a new cold storage facility on this site. While we understand that the needs of modern cold storage facilities are vastly different than when the buildings of the CMD East were first constructed, we are confident that more can be done to save as much of the Continental Can Building as possible. At the very least, the Continental Can Building’s Ashland elevation and tower must be preserved and incorporated into this new development as a way to retain the remaining industrial streetwall of this historic district.
Community concerns over emissions in this neighborhood must also be addressed. Longstanding air quality issues stemming from the nearby MAT Asphalt Plant and the new Amazon distribution center at 35th and Ashland have already affected the surrounding communities. Detailed consideration must be given to whether or not this development will be detrimental to the health of residents in the area and, if so, what steps will be taken to mitigate or eliminate these effects.
The CMD East, however, will continue to be eroded by demolitions if it does not receive comprehensive Chicago Landmark designation which would protect the district’s most significant structures. Without Landmark status, we will likely to continue seeing persistent threats against more warehouses throughout the district in the near future. While Landmark status for the Continental Can Building would certainly protect it from immediate danger, it is imperative that this status is extended to much of the CMD East so as to avoid similar demolition risks in the coming years.
OVERVIEW: Damen Silos:
The Damen Grain Silos situated along the South Branch of the Chicago River have been an iconic part of Chicago industrial and agricultural history for over a century. Grain was one of the major industries upon which Chicago was built and the Damen Silos played a significant role in its success for over 70 years.
After processing millions of bushels of grain, the silos were closed in 1977. Following a long period of vacancy, the concrete structures enjoyed a second life in recent years as a film site and destination for unofficial urban tourism.
A recent decision by the State of Illinois to sell the Damen Silos and 23.4-acre riverfront site to a buyer with plans for demolition makes them highly threatened. The buyer’s asphalt plant in the heart of the Pershing Road Central Manufacturing District has become an acute environmental challenge confronting the McKinley Park community. Despite the highly noxious odors generated from asphalt production, the MAT Asphalt plant began operations in 2018 without any public meetings or public notice from elected officials or regulatory agencies and has been operating on an expired permit since 2019.
Chicagoans should not lose one of the last monumental landmarks to its agricultural industrial past. We recommend the consideration of the historic Damen Grain Silos as part of a larger public amenity and reuse vision, which could include much-needed riverfront environmental restoration and recreational opportunities for nearby communities living on the Southwest Side, as well as Chicagoans across the city, and tourists.
HISTORY: Damen Silos:
The Damen Silos were built in 1906 by Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad at the northeast corner of West 29th Street, on a 23.4-acre site along the Chicago River. The concrete grain silos replaced an earlier iteration, 30-foot towers constructed in the first half of the 19th century that were lost to fire. John Metcalf, an experienced civil engineer, designed a complex of 35 storage silos with vents and windows, a powerhouse, and an elevator. Additionally, the complex included driers, bleachers, oat clippers, cleaners, scourers, dust packers, and boilers fed by water from the Chicago River. It had a storage capacity of one million bushels of grain.
The silos provide a direct connection to Chicago’s historic grain industry and should be both recognized and protected. Grain was one of the major industries upon which Chicago was built. By the 1850s, Chicago had emerged as the grain capital of the world. The explosive growth of the wheat and grain production was made possible by two revolutionary agricultural inventions of the 1830s; John Deere’s steel plow and Cyrus Hall McCormick’s Mechanical Reaper. Chicago was surrounded by a ‘prairie sea’ comprised of very rich and very tough sod. The steel plow allowed Midwestern farmers to easily till the tough prairie soil and the McCormick Reaper allowed them to efficiently reap all that they had sowed. By 1854, Chicago the Chicago River emerged as the busiest grain port in the world. Grain spurred the growth of the railroads and commodities futures trading, both of which are represented by Chicago Union Station and the Chicago Board of Trade building. In fact, the 31-foot-tall statue which stands atop the Art Deco Chicago Board of Trade building is Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain with a sheaf of wheat in her left hand.
As poet Carl Sandburg wrote in his legendary poem “Chicago”:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders.
In use during the heyday of Chicago’s grain industry in the early 20th century, the silos remained lucrative despite occasional grain dust explosions. After rebuilding and expansion of capacity, the Santa Fe Silos were sold briefly to the Kellogg-Stratton Grain company before ownership was transferred to the State of Illinois in 1928. Grain storage at the site ended following a 1977 explosion.
More recently, the Illinois Department of Transportation used the site for mixing construction materials for state roads. In 2005, IDOT transferred the property to the Central Management Services for disposal. An earlier purchase deal reportedly fell through due to the cost of demolition, asbestos removal, and construction of a sea wall.
THREAT: Damen Silos:
In August 2022, the State of Illinois issued an invitation-for-bid of sale which ended in October 2022. Four bids were reportedly received and the State of Illinois made the decision to sell the property to the highest bidder. Despite the protests and objections of local residents, as well as environmental and preservation organizations, the sale to Michael Tadin Jr. for $6.52 million was finalized in December 2022. Tadin is the owner of MAT Asphalt Company located in nearby McKinley Park which has recently come under scrutiny over environmental concerns. Reportedly, Tadin has envisioned demolition of the silos and environmental remediation in 2023, but has not revealed his intentions for the site.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Damen Silos:
As acknowledged by Tadin, the concrete structures are an iconic part of Chicago history. With a backdrop of downtown’s skyscrapers, the 15-story silos on the Chicago River have been an unofficial visual landmark for decades. They are instantly recognizable after multiple uses in films and television shows, including Transformer: Age of Extinction. Additionally, the silos have become an unofficial destination for “urban tourism,” drawing urban explorers and street artists.
The sale by the State has been criticized as a flawed procedure, resulting in an irreplaceable riverfront setting being disposed of without a determination of its future use or input from surrounding neighborhoods. Neighboring communities such as Pilsen and McKinley Park that have already been subjected to industrial pollution now face uncertain adverse consequences from the planned demolition and unknown future uses. Given the owner’s disregard for community priorities and voices in McKinley Park, there is concern for the large riverfront site.
Furthermore, unlike abundant recreational opportunities available along the North Branch of the Chicago River, the anticipated industrial use of this site only exacerbates the lack of such amenities for Southwest Side residents along the South Branch. The South Branch and its surrounding neighborhoods desperately need more green space and river access which the 23-acre site could provide in the form of a recreational park that could include restored towers for climbing. Such a use could also recognize the long use of the abandoned site as a forum for street art, which has been recognized as an urban art form.
Chicagoans should not lose the last monumental landmark to its agricultural industrial past. We recommend the consideration of the historic Damen Grain Silos as an urban climbing and street art site, with much-needed riverfront environmental restoration and recreational opportunities for all communities.
OVERVIEW: Fisk Power Station:
The enormous Fisk Power Station dates from 1903. Designed by architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, it achieved the previously impossible task of employing technology to create the world’s largest coal-fired electrical generators, based around the steam engine turbine. These systems redeveloped and refined the mammoth production of electricity for a rapidly growing city at a magnitude never before seen. Fisk became the model that was copied and replicated around the world.
Now closed, Fisk stands as an important reminder of Chicago’s industrial heritage and is an important architectural asset that should be repurposed. A repurposed and re-envisioned Fisk Power Station could resemble the Tate Modern— a shuttered London power plant reused as a world-class art museum which has become one of the United Kingdom’s largest tourist attractions—and could become a huge asset as a cultural and community center to Pilsen, Chinatown, Near-Southwest side and Central Area residents.
With the recent demolition of Crawford Station, Fisk Power Station remains the last large-scale survivor of Chicago’s power generation history reflecting the growth of the city into an industrial powerhouse. Additionally, the historic buildings only cover a small portion of the approximately 50-acre riverfront site, which would allow ample area for green space and new community-oriented development. It is currently owned by the same group responsible for the demolition of Crawford Station.
HISTORY: Fisk Power Station:
The Fisk Power Station was designed by architects Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, the successor firm to H.H. Richardson and the architects of Chicago Cultural Center, a designated Chicago Landmark, in 1903. Built by Commonwealth Edison and industrialist Samuel Insull, president of the corporation, it pushed the limits of what was possible during the early growth years of electricity.
Previously, the industry had relied on conventional reciprocating steam engines, which had reached their peak in development for power generation, providing a few hundred horsepower. However, in Switzerland, three new 3,000-kilowatt capacity steam turbine engines were being built, prompting Insull to travel to Europe to investigate the feasibility of installing a similar turbine in the Edison system in Chicago. Edison vice president, Louis Ferguson, and Fisk Power Station designer, Frederick Sargent, later retraced Insull’s findings in Europe and developed a 5,000 kilowatt system for Fisk. Per Insull’s demands, General Electric was charged with developing and completing the task of building the turbines, amid much criticism as to whether or not this could be done. Originally constructed to hold fourteen 5,000-kilowatt units, for an overall capacity of 70,000-kilowatts, turbo generating technology advanced so much that the first four units were soon replaced with 12,000-kilowatt units.
The Fisk Power Station, among many firsts, was also the home of the world’s largest transformer at the time. Built by Westinghouse, it was installed in 1958, weighing 37,500 pounds. Fisk was also responsible for providing direct current (DC) to the Chicago Transit Authority’s substations and rapid transit service.
Fisk features a variety of fine quality ornate and utilitarian structures: literally, a small city of buildings constructed to provide electricity to the City of Chicago and the region for more than 110 years. Many of its buildings employ the use of red-brick and stonework masonry as well as renaissance-revival detailing, an eclectic mix of historic styles. Later additions to the Fisk Power Station complex were designed by Daniel H. Burnham & Company and Shaw, Naess & Murphy. Several structures are Orange-rated in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey.
THREAT: Fisk Power Station:
The Fisk Power Station has been closed since 2012. It is currently owned by the same group responsible for the demolition of Crawford Station. While public meetings have been convened, and potential preservation of the buildings applauded by the communities, talks have ceased and further discussions have not been public.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Fisk Power Station:
Preservation Chicago urges a reuse of the historic structures at Fisk that would incorporate some of the existing equipment to tell a story of Chicago’s place on the world stage in the history of electricity and the production process. Many historic power plant buildings around the world have been reused to dramatic effect, including perhaps most famously the Tate Modern Museum in London. The Fisk Power Station, situated on the South Branch of the Chicago River, could also provide public access to the waterway, as well as recreation and park facilities. Preservation Chicago feels that Fisk could be an interactive, multipurpose facility for the entire region, attracting locals, as well as tourists from around the world.