The 1922 description of Ryerson Inc.’s Chicago metals processing and distribution plant in the first part of this series no longer holds true for anyone walking through the campus these days, as I did myself just last week.
The central building on the northeast corner of 16th and Rockwell is still much the same. But, when peeking inside the warehouse doors, you’ll notice instead loads of film production equipment, from cables to lightboxes, with black-shirted stagehands ferrying them around on handtrucks. When looking for the Ryerson name engraved above the door to the central building, you’ll only find a blue and yellow sign that reads “Cinespace Chicago Film Studios.”
As many Chicagoans know, Toronto-based Cinespace bought up most of the complex when Ryerson Inc. fully vacated the space in June 2012. Where thousands of tons of steel and aluminum used to be trucked in, stacked, cut and shipped, production companies now shoot such TV series as “Chicago Fire” and “Boss.”
The only vestiges of Ryerson’s existence on campus are square white signs on the corner of each building, noting where to locate specific door numbers.
“What Would YOU Do With a Space Like This?”
The one building Cinespace couldn’t really use for shooting – Ryerson’s West Plant warehouse – ended up housing a little bit of NorCal.
According to Karen Hamilton, regional marketing manager for all Lagunitas Brewing Company operations east of the Rockies (and founder Tony Magee’s sister), the vibrations from passing trains on the tracks right next to the warehouse made it nearly impossible to film. So when Magee came back to Chicago to search for a location to expand the Petaluma, Ca.-based brewery, he got in touch with a realtor who suggested they see the Cinespace-owned building – which wasn’t even on the market.
One day in February 2012, after the realtor showed Magee and Hamilton the space, they returned to see it on their own.
“There’s a picture that Tony took when we snuck into the building that time, and there was a lot of dim lighting in the warehouse area,” Hamilton told me over a beer in the brand-new taproom, scheduled to open today. “And I was just standing there looking around. He used me for perspective – human being against the size of the space – and he tweeted it out saying, “What would YOU do with this space like this?”
Magee already had just a little sumpin’ in mind…which obviously turned out to be quite big. So Lagunitas secured a 100-year lease from Cinespace in the spring of 2012, got financing from GE Capital (avoiding any financial incentives from the City of Chicago), and made their first cement cut to transform it into a brewery in June 2013. The first batches rolled off the line and went to market 11 months later.
“The floors were great,” Hamilton remembers. “If they could support steel fabrication, they sure could support brewery equipment. That was a big asset.”
Aside from Cinespace’s set pieces including burned-out fire trucks, bashed-up police cars and shot-up limos lurking, Hamilton said, office furniture and old lockers were still left behind from the Ryerson days.
Ryerson Was Fun Too, Back in the Day
Just because Joseph T. Ryerson and his colleagues were in the rough business of slinging iron and steel didn’t mean the company didn’t know how to provide their employees a good time at the 16th and Rockwell campus.
Here’s a snapshot of amenities, from “Engineering World: A Journal of Engineering and Construction”:
“Directly across Rockwell Street from the office building is the large 5-story recreation building of the company. This is as well appointed as the best of club rooms. There is a large dining hall, an auditorium, gymnasium, reading rooms, library, hospital bay and other attractive conveniences.”
Similarly, anyone who’s simply had one of its beers can sense that Lagunitas Brewing Company is synonymous with having fun.
The 300-seat Lagunitas Chicago taproom, which is nestled high up in the middle of the warehouse overlooking the production floor, will provide the usual suspects in terms of their beer styles, in addition to food and live music every night.
“I could just imagine this being Lagunitasville; it could just be so cool,” said Hamilton, whose husband, Ray Daniels, is known to beer nerds everywhere as the director of the Cicerone Certification Program here in Chicago. “I pictured a mural along this wall that the train goes up on, and how cool it could be, versus [inhabiting] another building in the midst of another industrial park – it’s like, what makes that building different?”
Even on the brewery floor, several smaller tanks are painted festively – some with the stylings of a B-52 bomber’s fuselage during World War II, others with leopard print – and in the break room hangs the portrait of Kramer from Seinfeld. All this from a company known for throwing events such as the Beer Circus.
In the last part of the series: Two legacies – in beer and in metal – to continue forever?