Friday, February 13, 2015

Fulton House over the Years

Fulton House as it looks today (JSB Photo)
(Minus, of course, the new tower at Wolf Point)
As the year began in 1898 The Chicago Tribune announced in its real estate section that a radically new warehouse was to be erected on the west side of the river just north of Wolf Point.  John Druecker’s new warehouse, according to the paper, was “regarded as one of the best examples of strictly fireproof construction in this city, if not in the United States.”  [Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1898]

The preliminary rendering of the warehouse
Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1898
No wood was used in construction of the building, and the steel frame of the structure was completely encased in concrete with “the nearest approach of the steel to the air at any point . . . over three inches, and the columns . . . filled in solidly internally as well as externally with the same material.”  This new system, patented by the architect, Frank B. Abbott, created a building that has stood the test of time.

The building would stand on piles, driven to hard-pan clay, the piles being the largest ever driven in the city, going down 55 feet.  Three high speed elevators would carry freight, which could be moved directly from railroad cars on the west side of the building.  The entire east side of the building would have massive steel doors that could be rolled open to handle freight brought in on the river.

The warehouse as it looked in 1910
Ryerson and Burnhma Archives
The whole building was thrown up before the middle of that year, costing about $300,000.  Ten years later an addition to the north was added and the whole complex was turned into a warehouse that provided cold storage.

In the late 1970’s Chicago architect Harry Weese came up with a plan to convert the old building into  . . . something.  That something eventually turned into a residential community.  In his oral history Weese stated, “The joy and stimulus in architecture is the discovery of fresh combinations of old ingredients appropriate to present problems.  I’d rather be right than contemporary.”

One of Harry Weese's preliminary drawings
Ryerson-Burnham Archives
In his plans for the conversion of the North American Cold Storage building into the residences at Fulton House, Weese lived up to that statement.  In doing so he created one of the more memorable residential buildings on the river. Along with the East Bank Club across the river that rose at approximately the same time as Weese’s conversion, the North branch of the river began a dramatic makeover from a sketchy series of rundown warehouses to one of the premier residential areas downtown.


The condition of the building in 1976 when Harry Weese acquired it
Ryerson-Burnham Archives
Fulton House at 345 North Canal Street, with its impressive balconies and thick walls, has approximately 106 owner-owned apartments with prices averaging in the mid-to-high 200’s.   It’s another success story in which a building on its last legs, a reminder of a bygone era in Chicago, a time of immense river and railroad traffic, was saved and re-purposed by a man who remains both right and contemporary.

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