De-frosting a building-sized refrigerator

The Fulton Market Cold Storage Company building in Chicago has been, well, storing cold things since the 1920s. But last July, the company sold the building and moved to a more modern facility outside town, leaving the old cold storage warehouse to be turned into offices.

But first, the new owners had to defrost it.

The Fulton Market Cold Storage building has ice-covered walls for the same reason a freezer can get covered in hard, packed ice. When you put something into a freezer — say, a giant slab of beef fresh from a slaughterhouse — that thing contains moisture. There's liquid trapped inside it. Over time, especially if it's not sealed very well, that moisture will turn into water vapor in the air. When temperature changes cause that vapor to condense back into liquid, it instantly freezes — turning to ice anywhere it touches.

In your fridge at home, that's just an annoyance. At the Fulton Market Cold Storage building, it was epic.

Besides the video above, you should really check out the amazing photos taken for the ice, pre-melt, by photographer Gary Jensen.

Via This Is Colossal


  1. Having defrosted a few freezers in my time I do not envy these guys.  A normal freezer can put out a pretty powerful funk when you defrost it, I can’t imagine what a 90 year old meat market freezer smells like. 

    1. That’s exactly the first thing I thought.  I hope they have an industrial supply of baking soda/clorox/febreze on hand…

      1. Given that they are doing a pretty serious renovation(and this was a fairly stark industrial interior to start with), they might be able to get away with bringing in a fairly punchy ozone generator and running that for a while.

        The ones that allege to be usable in occupied spaces tend to be dangerous or lying; but if ‘compatible with human health’ isn’t a problem, ozone will oxidize its merry way right through just about anything organic(but is sufficiently unstable that it will decay back to ordinary oxygen in relatively short order).

  2. This is in an area of town that has been experiencing a lot of change in the last two decades: used to be bustling at 4:00am with all the restauranteurs and store owners buying fish, veggies, etc. for the day from open stalls.  Now many of the buildings have been converted into loft apartments and all the necessary neighborhood amenities have been added, such as dry cleaners, grocery stores, etc. (which literally didn’t exist there 20 years ago).  Basically, the area went the way of coopers and blacksmiths.

  3. I’m imagining giant-sized versions of items that normally get uncovered during a defrost.  A half-consumed vat of Cherry Garcia, crystalized beyond recognition.  An entire herd of freezer-burned cattle.  Rafts of mummified spinach blocks.  Captain America.  I’m sure you get the idea.

      1. Doubly unfortunately, the box the camera is sitting on was a crate containing the mortal remains of Messrs. Macready and Childs, discovered in the ruins of the U.S. National Science Institute Station 4 / Antarctic Outpost #31.

        Hey, what happens to the camera at 40 seconds?

  4. Those pictures are beautiful. I would hope that the designers for the new space take the buildings history into account. They could really make some neat offices.

    1. It’s true!  You can almost see the ghostly outlines of hams that are yet-to-be. . .and look!  There’s Chrysoprase the troll!

  5. IIRC, Seattle had a similar freezer thawed out a few years back, and found a *fascinating* new problem.  The entire building was sitting on top of 20′ of permafrost that had built up over the decades, and partially sank into the muck over a few months after they turned the cold off.

  6. The linked comment about the smell of fish and meat not having subsided was somewhat stomach churning. I hope that as they reduce the building to its concrete shell, they can blast off the offending olfactory layer.

    And kudos to SRAM for attempting to recycle the building if possible.

    1. We used to call our grocery store in San Francisco “Rotting Meat”. It was clean, but a half century of dribbles into the (probably asbestos tile) flooring under the butcher counter does build up a residual aroma.

  7. I seem to remember that when Billingsgate Fish Market in London moved in 1982, the defrosting took some time and there were fears that as the permafrost under the building went away, the building might collapse. Scientists stood by to retrieve crates of fish as they emerged from the ice pack and I vaguely remember (but can’t find on a five second web search) that several interesting things were recorded regarding the change in average fish size over the decades and (I think) levels of parasites in the fish over the years. 

     (Remembering things became much easier after they invented the internet.)

    Edit: can’t find any specifics, but the news articles I found did remind me that Billingsgate was 900 years old when it moved.

    1. What was the world like before mobile phones and the internet? I lived there and can’t remember how we got anything done.

  8. Many years ago, I was told that a farmer bought the land previously occupied by an ice rink, and approached the soil science department of the local university to find out how long it would take to defrost… he was disappointed to be told it would take about 150 years.

    1. Depending on where it was, that could have been a huge boon. He could grow colder temperature crops in a hotter area, frinstance.

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