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Preservation Groups to Host Tour of Central Manufacturing District

By Casey Cora | October 23, 2014 4:44am
 Located in Bridgeport and McKinley Park, the Central Manufacturing District once stood as a mighty testament to the city's industrial prowess.
Central Manufacturing District
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MCKINLEY PARK — Believed to be the first of its kind in America, the Central Manufacturing District once stood as a mighty symbol of Chicago's industrial prowess.

Today, the strategically located district — it's roughly 14 miles in every direction to the city limits — is made up of many vacant and deteriorating buildings, but two local preservation groups will host a walking tour to tell Chicagoans about the area's contributions to the history of American industrial architecture.

"It's hard to get a sense for it. So much has changed. There's been so much demolition and the buildings have turned over. It's hard to get a sense of how cohesive it was," said Susannah Ribstein, a board member of Preservation Chicago.

 The Pershing corridor of the Central Manufacturing District contains seven massive concrete buildings.
The Pershing corridor of the Central Manufacturing District contains seven massive concrete buildings.
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The Central Manufacturing District: Chicago Junction Railway Service

"But part of the point of the tour is to help people see the history, even though it's fragmented now and these empty buildings have been altered to the point of not being recognizable." 

The tour takes place 1-3 p.m. on Nov. 2. Tickets are $5 and available online.

Ribstein and Erica Ruggiero, also with Preservation Chicago, will launch the tour from the Chicago Community Bank at 1110 W. 35th St., then head southwest for stops at the Bridgeport Art Center, the "largely intact" original streetscape at 37th and Iron Streets, structures along Ashland Avenue and the Pershing Road development, a series of seven hulking buildings between Western and Racine avenues.

The tour wraps up at the once-iconic clock tower at Pershing and Damen Avenue.

The district was established by Chicago Junction Railway at the turn of the 20th Century along Ashland Avenue, providing access to nearby Union Stock Yards and the Chicago River's south branch, making them an attractive logistical option for American companies.

Planners accommodated those captains of industry — steel, iron, paper, beer, musical and electrical equipment among them — with a connected series of buildings complete with its own police force, fire department, rail lines and ritzy club for executives.

Together, the network of buildings served for decades as a brawny example of world-class industrial planning.

"That concept became extremely popular after it was pioneered there," Ribstein said.

But as time wore on, industries left Chicago and companies closed their doors. Some of the buildings in the 265-acre district were torn down, turned into storage or altogether abandoned.

More recently, the memorable January 2013 "ice palace" fire destroyed the Pullman Couch Company. The nearby Wrigley Gum factory at 35th Street and Ashland is partially demolished, likely to make room for a retail development.

At least one other building on Ashland is expected to be torn down, but one South Side entrepreneur is hoping to salvage all of the bricks and timber.

Preservation Chicago believes what's left of the district is worth saving.

Ruggiero said her group, and tour co-host Landmarks Illinois, are lobbying the state's Historic Preservation Agency to determine eligibility for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, which would qualify the buildings for federal preservation grants and tax credits.

Both of the preservation groups have listed the Central Manufacturing District on their respective lists of endangered buildings.

Asked if she's confident the state would greenlight the group's bid, Ruggiero said "I'm not sure ... It is a really big district. I don't know where we fall on their list of things to do."

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