WHEN IT RAINS: The Salt Shed’s indoor concert facility, shown here in a rendering, opens in February with capacity of  3,600. (Courtesy venue)  

The Salt Shed brings new flavor to Chicago’s live music scene. 

The new entertainment complex, opening Feb.  17, is the latest venture from 16” On Center’s Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden, the team behind prominent Chicago-area clubs Empty Bottle, Thalia Hall, Evanston SPACE, Beauty Bar and The Promontory. 

The multi-venue site features the 5,000-capacity Fairgrounds, an outdoor concert space on the Chicago River adjacent to The Shed, a 3,600,capacity  indoor performance hall in the historic Morton Salt building. 

It’s a fresh take on the classic Morton Salt/Umbrella Girl tagline: When it rains, they pour – indoors at numerous custom bars. 

“I love when people use words like ‘strategy’ with us,” Finkelman said of creating the complex. “It’s long been part of our mission at 16” on Center to explore the combination between music, food and drink, all things we love and all things that are part of our everyday experience.”

The Shed kicks off its concert programming with Tove Lo’s “Dirt Femme Tour” with special guest Slayyyter; Guatemalan-American house producer/DJ Gordo (March 3); the “Godfather of Punk” Iggy Pop (March 10); Bikini Kill’s first Chicago show since reuniting in 2019 (April 22); and a three-night residency with King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard (June 11-13).

The Flaming Lips are scheduled to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on May 5. Finkelman recalled an early appearance by the band at the Empty Bottle, lauded as one of the “20 Best Rock Clubs” in the country by Rolling Stone.

“One of the things that really excites me about this project is continuing to work with the artists we’ve grown up with,” said Finkelman, managing partner of 16” on Center. “These are musicians that started at the Empty Bottle, grew to Thalia Hall and we now look forward to hosting at the Salt Shed. 

“I remember the Flaming Lips at the Empty Bottle in 1994, stopping their show mid-set to walk across a sea of fans and play a solo set on a rinky-dink piano that came with the bar,” he said. “I have never experienced a crowd so captivated, and it reminds me why I have the best job in the world. It’s just one of the many stories of live music magic that make our places so special.”

The renovated $20 million Shed features multi-level seating and premium offerings with access to balcony opera boxes, custom bars and expedited entry. Quality of sound at the Salt Shed for bands and the audience was a priority with an L-Acoustics sound system designed specifically for the space.

“We would like for it to sound better than great,” Golden said with a chuckle. “That is the level we are seeking.”

The opening of both the Shed and the Fairgrounds, which opened last summer, moves the 16” On Center collective into a new and competitive category. Empty Bottle and Thalia Hall have capacities of 400 and 800, respectively.

Additional upcoming dates include Elle King, The Roots, The Hold Steady, The Mountain Goats, Third Eye Blind, Fever Ray, Viagra Boys and Boy Pablo. In addition, Golden said the Shed will eventually host a comprehensive food, beverage, and retail experience, with plans to incorporate indoor markets and other events that celebrate Chicago’s artistic community.

“This is the next step in the relationships we have built over the years,” Finkelman said. “These are our friends, our families that have grown up in our venues and now we are able to continue that relationship in a bigger size room or having additional, different cool plays. This is a natural progression.”

Band amenities include private showers for headliners, bands and crew, a warmup area for rehearsals and meet-and-greets, a library, game room and a balcony overlooking the river and Chicago’s skyline with a private dining space for 40 people.

“Our intention is to give the bands an opportunity to utilize some of the chefs in town whether it is a two-star Michelin chef, or it’s hot dogs, we can make that happen,” Golden said. 

“We have this saying, it’s not hospitality, it’s ‘hospitotally’,” Finkelman added. “It’s going the next step. We want bands to feel at home and taken care of.”

SALT SHAKER: The outdoor Fairgrounds at the Salt Shed opened in summer 2022, with performances by Lord Huron, Big Gigantic, Jason Isbell, Death Cab For Cutie and more. (Elizabeth De La Piedra)

Salt Shed partners include Grassroots, the official cannabis provider, and Wintrust Bank. Part of those multi-year partnerships with the venue includes spotlighting local charities and nonprofits with customized murals on the exterior walls. 

Refurbishing historic buildings into community centers for food, art and music is central to the mission. The name 16” on Center is the construction term for a center mark that creates the strongest build, which is how Finkelman and Golden approach each project. 

“I have spent most of my professional life doing two things,” said Golden, president of Blue Star Properties and a partner in 16OC. “One, renovating and repurposing some of Chicago’s obsolete and historic buildings; and two, collaborating and creating a number of music venues and restaurants throughout the city. Having the opportunity to combine both passions in the presentation of this iconic Salt Shed, turned music and events venue, is truly a dream.”
The Morton Salt complex has been an iconic fixture in Chicago for nearly 100 years. “It’s a geographical beacon in Chicago,” Finkelman said.

“We had the opportunity to take a well-known structure and turn it from a rusty, old salt shed into a first-class venue,” Golden said. “We like that kind of stuff.”

The facility was originally designed to house the local salt, packaging and distribution operations. Operations ceased in 2015 opening the door for 16OC, Blue Star Properties, alongside R2 and Sky Deck, to protect the architectural integrity of the industrial complex while transforming the space into a top-line music venue. Refurbishing a warehouse that once stored a corrosive mineral proved challenging. 

“When we went into the salt shed, we could have scraped the whole thing, but that wasn’t what we wanted to do,” Finkelman said. “We have painstakingly tried to save as much of that building as possible and reimagine a different use.”

They kept as much of the original industrial structure as possible including the conveyor belt that moved salt from boats on the river to the warehouse. Originally two structures, salt damage to the east shed forced them to tear it down, but they repurposed part of the structure as the proscenium for the Fairgrounds stage. 

“We wanted to leave the framework open and do events there,” Golden said. “But when we took the whole thing down, we were standing there, looking out, and went, ‘You know, what this would be great for? Music on the river.’” 

“When I see that lit up at night, juxtaposed with the skyline of the city, it is one of the most amazing things,” said Finkelman, a Chicago native. “For Craig and I who are true lovers of live music and true lovers of the arts to be able to do this in a city that we love and to bring some of these old buildings back to life for a modern usage, it is an amazing feeling.”