An icon of Philadelphia’s industrial history closes
Approaching Philadelphia’s Delaware Avenue from the west on Spring Garden Street, the building is unmistakable — not merely due to its scale, but also because of its monolithic appearance: a solid, windowless brick facade, roughly half a block on each side, standing 120 feet tall. Rounding Delaware Avenue and turning south, two similarly massive, largely windowless, buildings come into view. Behind, a tall chimney looms, attached to a more modest, yet still striking, two-story structure.
It would all seem eerily mysterious were it not for the identification proudly painted across the crown of the buildings: Philadelphia Warehousing & Cold Storage Company. Informally known as Philly Cold, the company boasts a nearly 150-year history which has recently come to an end.
Where the Philly Cold buildings now stand, the 1865 Barnes Map of Philadelphia shows railroad stations on either side of what was once Beach Street: the Philadelphia and Reading station to the east between Beach Street and Delaware Avenue, and the North Pennsylvania Railroad station to the west between Front and Beach Streets.
The railroad infrastructure would prove valuable when the Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage established its presence there.
Incorporated on April 20, 1873 as the Mercantile Warehouse Company, the firm changed its name to The Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage Company on September 28, 1889.
A July 3, 1890, ordinance approved a siding from the tracks of the North Pennsylvania Railroad on Front Street “running into the property of the Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage Company, to the west side of Beach street, thence crossing Beach street into other property of the Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage Company thence crossing Delaware avenue, in order to connect their Cold Storage Warehouses on the west side of Delaware avenue and east side of Beach street and their wharf tracks of the aforesaid company.”
The 1891 Hexamer General Surveys [Volume 26, Plate 2505] includes both a floor plan and a rendering of the original storage building (now known as “Building A”) and, across Beach Street, the Engine House (variously called the Power House or the Ice House). The path of a pipe tunnel underneath Beach Street extends from the Engine House to Building A. The first floor of Building A is listed has housing artificial ice making, offices, and receiving and shipping. Floors two through six are identified as cold storage rooms, and floors seven and eight are for general merchandise storage. The eastern side of the Engine House lists ice makers and dynamos on the first floor and condensers on the second. The room to the west is the pump room on the first floor and tank room on the second. Attached behind is the Boiler House with the chimney and, adjacent, a supply area and a coal shed.
The July 1891 edition of Ice and Refrigeration (“The national magazine of industrial refrigeration”) describes company’s “immense enterprise”:
Fronting the Delaware river at Noble street, at the very center of the shipping industries in Philadelphia, there has just been completed the huge and towering main building of the Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage Co., an imposing structure of massive design, eight stories in height, having a frontage on both Delaware avenue and Beach street of 125 feet, a depth of 150 feet, and a total height of 120 feet.
On Beach street, opposite the main building, and in harmony with it in general design, is a second structure, in which are located the refrigerating machines, condensers, boilers, pumps, distilling apparatus, and other machinery to complete the refrigerating plant, as well as a duplicate electrical light and power plant for 1,200 incandescent and arc lights. This building is 65×140 feet, and two stories in height, with a gabled roof and ventilator tower, having an octagonal chimney stack 175 feet in height.
The 1895 Atlas of the City of Philadelphia published by G.W. Bromley shows the Cold Storage Warehouse between Beach St and Delaware Ave, adjoining a Salt Warehouse to the north. Across the road at 506 Beach Street stands the Engine House, identified simply as a “storage” building. The train sidings to the loading dock of the south side of the main building are clearly shown, abutting a wooden structure that covers the dock.
A Warren-Ehret Company photo shows the buildings around the turn of the century, looking northwest from Delaware Ave. An illustration from the period shows a similar scene from an elevated view looking toward the northeast. Both show the original storage building (Building A) with the wooden shed covering the loading dock with the rail siding still in the open. Across Beach St is the two-story Engine House and the smokestack tower still visible today.
The March, 1909 edition of the Bulletin of the American Warehouseman’s Association describes the acquisition of the properties north of the Engine House facing both Beach Street and Front Street:
Properties 512 to 528 Beach street and 515 to 533 North Front street have been sold by Daniel J. Connelly, real estate broker, 521 Green street, to the Philadelphia Warehousing & Cold Storage Co., for a consideration not made public, as a site for an eight-story cold storage and freezing plant, plans for which are in preparation. The properties cover an area 225 by 165 feet and are assessed at about $50,000. A little more than half of that lot will be occupied by the new building, which will measure 150 by 165 feet.
In addition to the building a coal pocket with a capacity of several thousand tons, equipped with a self-feeding apparatus, connected with the furnaces, will be constructed on the Front street end of the lot, and the company’s present engine house will be doubled in size.
Once the dwellings on these newly acquired properties were razed, the aforementioned “new building,” now known as Building C, was constructed and the Engine House was expanded.
The 1910 Bromley Atlas of the City of Philadelphia shows all the major structures seen today. Attached to the original Cold Storage Warehouse (“Building A”) is a brick structure (now called “Building B”) that covers the railroad siding. The large building between Beach and Front (“Building C”) is also shown, attached to the smaller Engine House to the south, the two jointly labeled “Phila Warehouse Co.”
Over the years, the company upgraded the structures and their facilities.
The January, 1915 edition of the Bulletin of the American Warehousemen’s Association [Vol. XVI (16) No. 179] notes “The Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage Company are engaged in the erection of an addition to their power plant building, consisting of one steel and brick addition 23×24 ft. and one 17×23 ft.”
The August-September, 1950 issue of the Frick Company’s Frick System publication highlighted the installation of new ammonia compressors. While noting “the recent War delayed the…modernization of the refrigerating equipment,” the publication proudly announced the installation of four new Frick compressors “connected to a battery of four large shell-and-tube brine coolers.”
To many contemporary Philadelphians the facility is known principally for Meg Saligman’s enormous 6,000 square foot mural, “Our Flag Unfurled,” that adorns the south-facing wall of Building B. Created in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program describes the work as “intended to appear slightly sad, as if unfurling down the side of the building.”
Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage continued providing 335,000 square feet of refrigerated and dry storage space until July 8, 2019. On that date, the ammonia compressors in the Engine House were turned off and chilled brine stopped flowing to the cold storage chambers. As the ice that coated the cooling coils melted, water rained down on the storage structures’ loading docks.
On October 16, 2019 the property was sold to 500 NCCB FEE LLC for $12,000,000.
Interior demolition and the removal of equipment is currently underway. The future of the structures and American flag mural is uncertain.
For additional photos, see the Flickr album Philadelphia Warehousing & Cold Storage: