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Restoring St. Augustine’s Historic Ice Plant

by St. Augustine Distillery

Our distillery is located inside of North Florida’s last remaining ice manufacturing plant. Portions of the structure were originally constructed in 1905, when the ice plant was just one of a row of manufacturing facilities that existed along Riberia. Ice manufacturing was essential to local fishing and shrimping industries prior to modern refrigeration.

When we approached the remodel, we wanted people to be overwhelmed by the sense of history an authentic turn-of-the-century manufacturing plant can bestow. We wanted to restore the feeling of walking into an old ice factory.

Previous owners of the building were manufacturing movie projectors. They turned the inside into a modern projector manufacturing plant for the 1990s, so we had to uncover much of the original structure from beneath drywall and drop ceilings. Some of these 22 foot ceilings were completely covered up. We had no idea what was behind these walls.

As we deconstructed the previous remodels, we discovered steel beams and the bridge crane—the mechanism that moved the enormous ice blocks back and forth. We discovered these beautiful windows that had been boarded up. They were not in good repair and this style had been out of production for generations, so finding identical windows from the early 1900s was a challenge, but we found perfect matches. Somebody in New Jersey had steel factory windows from the same era with their UL grating stamp still on them. We rented a truck and went north.

First we stopped in Staten Island where we met a woman who owned several warehouses from the same period. We spent almost three days in an enormous factory that had been turned into storage units in the 70s. Because the warehouse took up almost a whole city block, parts had been walled off since the 1930s. We found salvage that has gone untouched for the last 80 or 90 years. In New Jersey we got our windows. We also procured a commercial scale like the ones used to weigh grain and barrels. The sort of scale you would have found in distilleries in the 1880s.

We searched all over for period fixtures and pieces to create a realistic picture the factory environment in the 1920s. The antique time clock at the front where you start your tour like a factory shift still has a punch card with a message on it from 1949: “400 demerits if you’re late.” Even the bar in our tasting room is an antique.

We went to great lengths to use period building materials. Some of the construction materials we used dates back to 1860. We secured factory beams and lumber from industrial buildings from Georgia to New York. Even the bricks we had to add during the restoration were reclaimed bricks. The furniture, the old lockers, the work tables, it was all either here when we took over the building, or we went out and salvaged it from similar structures all over the country. The arched doorway in the distillery was not structurally sound, so we had it re-engineered using reclaimed wood. You can still see the spot where the fire extinguisher hung once upon a time. The lighting, the doors, the tables and the bartop date back to the 1870s and 1880s. The toilets are high tank, pull chain toilets from the 1920’s. The sinks are original factory sinks we actually unbolted from one of the factories in Staten Island.
All those little details matter to us.

When we built the museum, we secured pieces of equipment that helped tell the story of ice production in the early 20th century. We showcase an old ammonia ice compressor like they used to cool the big ice cans. We took extra special care to restore the original equipment that remained in the building. Some of the machinery we simply restored to show in our on-site exhibits, but the ones we could bring back to working order and use, we do.  Our sugar cane mill is from 1883.  The movie screen and the movie seat hardware in the museum are from a movie theatre in Jacksonville that was built in the 1920s.
As St. Augustinians, it was a central draw to this project for us to be able to lovingly restore this incredible piece of our city’s history. It has inspired our entire operation. This building introduced us to a forgotten time on our city. We sometimes get so caught up in the 16th Century in the nation’s oldest city, we forget all about the history between now and then. As we learned more about the role of ice production and distilling in North Florida, we discovered an era when distilling was about crafting quality spirits rather than corporate efficiency. This was a legacy we wanted to restore through the building and through our craft spirits.