Date of Visit: January 25, 2013
When you fall in love with abandoned buildings, your love story very rarely has a happy ending. Sometimes your beloved is abused callously over many years, with taggers and vandals and thieves slowly breaking her down, one element at a time. Sometimes your beloved collapses under the strain of yet another midwestern winter. Sometimes your beloved is claimed by someone else, and you are not allowed to see each other anymore, as barriers and bars and boards are thrust between you. Sometimes your beloved just disappears from your life, as you drive by to realize she has vanished, leaving only a faint outline of where she used to stand. And, perhaps most painfully of all, sometimes she is deliberately destroyed, murdered in the dead of night, lost to the flames.
One such irreplaceable beauty was lost in Chicago in January, 2013. Among the exploring crowd, this building was known as “the Furniture Factory”. I’d heard of it but I’d never been inside to photograph it. It was part of one of my favorite neighborhoods in Chicago: the old Central Manufacturing District. This was the first planned industrial district in the country, dating from 1905. The buildings in the district are immense and architecturally beautiful, with terracotta details and logos of the original companies that built them embossed on their sides. Many of the buildings are sadly vacant or partially vacant now and decaying as they await a reuse that will likely never come.
The “Furniture Factory” was one of these decaying, empty beauties. It had most recently been the home of the Harris Marcus Group, a maker of high-end furniture, who occupied the building from 1972 to 2006. Before the fire, the inside of the factory was still filled with chair frames and other debris from its days as a furniture manufacturer. But the building itself dates back to 1919. It was designed by architect S. Scott Joy and originally built by the Pullman Couch Company, who originally made beds for the Pullman Sleeper cars. Terracotta medallions on the building showed ‘P.C. Co’ and this wonderful article shows that during demolition, as the Harris Marcus facade was removed, the ‘Pullman Couch Company’ facade was revealed underneath.
This beautiful old building was brick and terracotta on the outside, but thick, heavy, oiled lumber on the inside. So, when it caught on fire on the night of Tuesday, January 22, 2013, it didn’t stand a chance. The fire quickly became the biggest fire Chicago had seen since 2006, and took a few days to extinguish. The below-freezing temperatures resulted in the building turning into a beautiful ice sculpture.
I couldn’t let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass me by so I hastily scheduled a day off and journeyed down to the still-smoldering ruins of the factory on Friday, January 25. They were still spraying water from the adjacent building (the former Union Bag and Paper Company), and had already begun demolition of the gutted building. With the ice covering its corpse, the building was even more beautiful than it was in life. And I was very sad that I had never taken the time to visit her previously.
There’s nothing left there now but a big empty lot and a few piles of bricks and terracotta medallions that were once someone’s proud dream come true. I do feel good knowing that they preserved some of these things… but the emptiness I feel standing beside that empty lot cannot be filled.