UNION STOCKYARDS — Matt Joyce's South Side warehouse isn't just any old brickyard.
It's a purgatory of sorts for salvaged pieces of Chicago history.
"I'm not Mr. Green or anything, but my parents grew up in the Depression, so there's this element of 'Hey, don't throw that out and waste it,' " said Joyce, owner of Stockyards Brick, 4150 S. Packers Ave.
Casey Cora says Stockyards Brick has many of the city's building blocks from just after the 1871 fire:
Joyce, 49, of Hinsdale, recently left the financial services industry to pursue his passion of salvaging and selling building materials from sites throughout the city. His warehouse is in a building where the Swift Meatpacking Company used to store beef.
Among his major scores: He just bought the ruins of the famous "ice palace" fire that destroyed a furniture and lamp company in the city's old Central Manufacturing District last year. Already, he sold many of the bricks from the building which have been given new life as a brick home in Hinsdale and a basement wine cellar in Burr Ridge.
Joyce also bought the dilapidated, graffiti-strewn buildings next to it, with plans to salvage all of the timber and brick.
"It's all good product, really in my opinion, better than anything that's made today," he said.
Walking the grounds outside his Stockyards warehouse, Joyce turns into a gleeful historian.
One corner of the lot is filled with towering oak pillars plucked from the Chicago River. They were once used to protect the bases of bridges from passing barges.
There are stacks of glass block, piles of limestone from a Joliet quarry and rows of marble pillars rescued from the controversial demolition of St. James church at 29th Street and Wabash Avenue.
All of it tells a story.
"Just think of the marriages and the funerals that took place [at St. James]. My grandparents were married there," he said.
Most recently, Joyce and his crew bought a shipment of bricks salvaged from the demolition of the Ashland Avenue flyover ramp. Turns out, countless thousands of high-quality clay bricks were once laid alongside rail tracks for trolley cars on Ashland.
Now, they're getting stacked by workers at Joyce's warehouse and destined for a new future.
Joyce said many of the bricks he stocks at the warehouse were part of the reconstruction after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, after which city leaders outlawed timber construction and mandated construction using fireproof materials.
Many were made in Belgium in the late 1800s, "then came over as ballast in trade ships on the Atlantic Ocean, the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and then the Chicago River," Joyce said.
Joyce said he has plans to restore the old warehouse, but it's slow going.
Inside, there's an entire roller rink floor that's been broken down, bundled together and stacked neatly onto pallets.
Nearby, there's a massive fireplace mantle festooned with nautical-themed carvings, a piece Joyce said likely originated in a Michigan Avenue hotel prior to the Great Fire.
And next to that lies an ornamental cast iron piece bound for new life in a Lincoln Park mansion.
For all of the historical building materials awaiting rebirth at Joyce's business, there are a great deal of random items too — a few motorcycles here, an enormous grill smoker there.
And parked outside is a small fleet of giant Army trucks.
Not unlike a mechanic who might eyeball a beat-up Chevy for parts, Joyce gives the giant trucks another once-over.
The tires, he could sell. And probably the engine, too.
But as the only items on the entire ground that are still in one piece, he decides not to to take them apart, leaving these parts of American history in tact — for now.
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