State of the arts

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The Ice House has been gone for a few weeks now, leaving behind only a smokestack and a dirt lot. The building had been a hub for transients, neighbors in the River Arts District said, and demanded a swift demolition of the unsecured building after a man was murdered there in October.

Asheville City Council moved quickly, voting to demolish the iconic structure at its Jan. 8 meeting, and beginning work in February.

During that month, rumors circulated of a man named Fritz. People claimed that Fritz had lived in the Ice House for decades, that he had a generator in the basement and that he had been an aerospace engineer with NASA. Although the Ice House had actually been a functioning ice factory until the early 1990s, it seemed likely he was a neighborhood regular and possible that he had lived at the building for some time. So we set to look for him. But it’s not entirely easy to find someone with no address and a seldom-used phone.

Photographer Anthony Bellemare and I set to track him down, finalizing a meeting one frigid night. Really, it was dramatic. We parked at the RAD round-about and stood on the bridge, as instructed. Fritz emerged from the northern end of Roberts Street, where a staircase links the road to the train tracks and dirt lot where the Ice House stood. And then he wanted to go somewhere decidedly undramatic: the McDonald’s on Patton Avenue.

It turns out, Fritz (who refused to give his legal name) had indeed lived at the Ice House. Not for the 30 years people claimed, but for 2 ½, at least. Had he been an employee of NASA? Well, not exactly. But he did paint a picture of what life was like inside the cavernous building.

Fritz was one of several people living in the 50,000-square-foot former ice factory, which he called the “white elephant,” because of its size and white-ish coloring. He had a proper bed inside, boxes of clothing and blankets, lights, pet cats and the fabled generator.

He was born in Bellefonte, Pa., in 1948, moved to Asheville with his parents and siblings in 1960 and graduated from the St. Eugene School (now Asheville Catholic) in 1966 before attending N.C. State and serving a tour of duty as a radio engineer in the Navy during the Vietnam war.

As for the nickname, he got it in the early 1970s while studying mechanical engineering at N.C. State. “It was hung on me,” Fritz told Xpress, describing it as a mash-up of his real names. “I didn’t like it originally, but it’s better than the old name.” And he’s used it ever since. “I figure that’s long enough on squatters’ rights for a name.”

His residence in the Ice House wasn’t exactly a secret. He was something of a self-appointed guardian, he said. Former owners Anne Simmons and Tootie Lee gave tacit permission for him to be there, he said, though they couldn’t be reached to confirm that. He came to know most of the folks who came and went on a regular basis, and there were many. When the demolition crew was seen removing a generator from the building days before deconstruction, a new vantage point on his role in the space surfaced — that of an unlikely preservationist.

“I was in the Ice House for 2-1/2 years trying my best to preserve it,” he said, adding, “I was waiting for people to get civilized before revamping the building.” The generator would have been used to activate the interior lights. This didn’t happen. Instead, rampant drinking and drug use continued to plague the come-and-go tenants, he says, ultimately resulting in disputes, physical alteractions and eventually the murder of Andrew Marsh.

Fritz’s daily routines included removing debris, looking out for the tenants he considered problematic, removing water buildup and repositioning fire doors to keep the building as safe as possible. Others knocked them down daily, he recalled.

“The main damage was done by iron thieves, or, ‘scrappers’ if you wanna call them that,” Fritz said. “It would be fireproof if the thieves hadn’t stripped out the metal.” They would come in and remove the iron and steel refrigerant coils lining the walls, he says.

In its heyday, the coils were insulated within the fireproof walls. It’s the insulation that is flammable. So when the scrappers tore into the walls, that’s what caused the building to become a fire hazard, Fritz said. Scrappers would occasionally use saws to remove the metal, he said, which was no quiet task. Yet there was little he could do to prevent them.

“[It] was the last vestige of true industrial architecture at the riverside,” he said. (Production-based industry, he explained, as there’s no shortage of old factory buildings in the area.) With nostalgia, he reflected on the 1994 arson of the Cotton Mill Studios. “We lost the real prize,” referring to that building, which at the time had housed artist studios and food distributor Mountain Foods Products. Part of the structure lives on in Cotton Mill Studios, which was spared by an internal firewall.

It seemed Fritz had true love and concern for the old, dying, decaying and long-gone industrial beasts. Property owners usually find a means to justify demolition over renovation, he says. Walls are too weak, there’s too much damage from vandals or there’s a hole in the roof. In fact, he claimed that some would allow a structure to decay from intentional neglect. “If you don’t want a building, don’t fix the roof,” he says. “A hole will always bring a building down.”

Fritz told of his general concern for not just the Ice House, but the landscape of the RAD. Heritage is preserved in brick and mortar, he said. “If you lose your history, you lose your identity.”

And, as for NASA: “Could have,” he said, “but didn’t.”

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