AR­CHI­TEC­TURE

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - By Blair Kamin [email protected] tri­bune.com

Les­lie Ventsch, Sh­eryl Schulze and Grant Uh­lir,

Chicago’s Old Post Of­fice wasn’t just a white ele­phant when the Gensler de­sign firm be­gan draw­ing up plans to re­vi­tal­ize the mas­sive struc­ture. It was a wounded white ele­phant.

None of the el­e­va­tors worked. There were no lights in the stair­wells. The lime­stone fa­cade, which strad­dles the Eisen­hower Ex­press­way, was crum­bling. Old mail-pro­cess­ing equip­ment was ev­ery­where, mak­ing the place feel like an aban­doned fac­tory.

Three years and more than $800 mil­lion later, Gensler has played an in­stru­men­tal role in turn­ing the once-hulk­ing struc­ture into what is shap­ing up as a thriv­ing of­fice hub. With re­mark­able speed, the build­ing’s de­vel­oper, New York-based 601W Cos., has leased siz­able chunks of the 2.5 mil­lion-square-foot in­te­rior to such high-pro­file ten­ants as Pep­siCo and Wal­greens.

But the im­pact of this rein­ven­tion is civic as well as com­mer­cial. It’s elim­i­nated an eye­sore at the gate­way to down­town and rekin­dled ap­pre­ci­a­tion for a build­ing that re­mains deeply in­grained in the life of Chicago.

Back when the struc­ture at 433 W. Van Buren St. was Amer­ica’s largest post of­fice, the build­ing’s work­ers shipped goods from Sears and Montgomery Ward around the na­tion. When its main por­tion was con­structed in the early 1930s, a hole was left in the mid­dle of it, an­tic­i­pat­ing how the Eisen­hower would run through that open­ing in 1956. In time, traf­fic re­porters turned the build­ing’s name into a syn­onym for “down­town Chicago” with such sen­tences as, “It’ll take you an hour from Route 53 to the Post Of­fice.”

“We felt like the en­tire city was root­ing for the project,” said Gensler prin­ci­pal Sh­eryl Schulze. “No pres­sure.”

For their ex­em­plary ef­forts on this adap­tive re-use project, the Tri­bune rec­og­nizes Schulze, as well as Gensler prin­ci­pal Grant Uh­lir and de­sign di­rec­tor Les­lie Ventsch, as Chicagoans of the Year in ar­chi­tec­ture. The three led a team from Gensler, a global ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign firm that opened its Chicago of­fice in 1995. About 140 peo­ple from the firm worked on the ren­o­va­tion.

In ad­di­tion to solv­ing func­tional chal­lenges, like the fact that the build­ing’s first floor was split in half by the ex­press­way, the de­sign­ers suc­cess­fully bal­anced the of­ten-con­flict­ing agen­das of pre­serv­ing the past and mak­ing way for the fu­ture.

For starters, nearly 1.2 mil­lion tons of ma­te­rial, much of its postal pro­cess­ing equip­ment, had to be re­moved from the build­ing’s in­te­rior. But this was no or­di­nary gut re­hab.

Work­ing with the Evanston firm of McGuire Igleski & As­so­ciates, the Gensler team re­stored the daz­zling Art Deco lobby along Van Buren. A book­let for ten­ants metic­u­lously iden­ti­fied other his­toric fea­tures, in­clud­ing mail chutes, vaults and scales, to be pre­served. Re­tain­ing them will al­low the de­vel­oper to qual­ify for tens of millions of dol­lars in his­toric-preser­va­tion tax breaks.

New es­ca­la­tors lit­er­ally over­came the ex­press­way bar­rier, fer­ry­ing ten­ants to a sec­ond-floor “Main Street” that routes them to the rest of the build­ing. A boat­load of ameni­ties, from a bar with a bocce court to a vast rooftop deck, com­pen­sated for the dull­ness of the sur­round­ing area. And the build­ing’s mas­sive floor plates — a sin­gle floor can fit up to 2,000 work­ers — sat­is­fied the cur­rent de­sire for wide-open work ar­eas that en­cour­age peo­ple to col­lab­o­rate.

On the ex­te­rior, Gensler teamed with the Chicago of­fice of Wiss, Jan­ney, El­st­ner ar­chi­tects to re­pair or re­place scores of lime­stone pan­els. More than 2,000 win­dows were re­placed with new ones that are both en­ergy-ef­fi­cient and repli­cate the pro­file of the orig­i­nals.

Sat­is­fy­ing the his­toric preser­va­tion and real es­tate leas­ing agen­das was a “del­i­cate dance,” said Uh­lir, who first worked on the Old Post Of­fice in 2000 when another de­vel­oper was eye­ing the build­ing. It had been shut­tered in the mid-1990s af­ter a mod­ern re­place­ment opened to its south.

The Gensler team views the project as a model of ar­chi­tec­tural re­cy­cling whose lessons can be ap­plied to other his­toric build­ings in Chicago and around the na­tion. Adapt­ing old build­ings to new uses, they cor­rectly rea­son, saves time (the build­ing is al­ready there).

It also saves ur­ban char­ac­ter, and, as Ventsch points out, makes way for “new history,” like the wed­dings that are now planned in the Old Post Of­fice’s ele­gant lobby.

That shift — from “white ele­phant” to white wed­ding gowns — is a most re­veal­ing sign of the sparkling re­make the Gensler team has wrought.

For the 2019 Chicagoans of the Year, the Tri­bune asked each re­cip­i­ent the fol­low­ing ques­tions about the decade of arts in Chicago:

Q: Looking back over the last decade, what do you think was the most im­por­tant event that im­pacted the Chicago arts scene?

A: The launch of Art on theMART in 2018 marked a ma­jor mile­stone in Chicago’s public art of­fer­ing, ad­ding to the ar­ray of plazas and in­stal­la­tions that hold great mean­ing for the cul­ture of our city. Not only does the pro­gram al­low the en­tire com­mu­nity to ex­plore and en­joy the in­ter­sec­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture, art and dig­i­tal me­dia in a new and ex­cit­ing venue un­like any other, it so­lid­i­fies the pres­ence of art within one of the city’s next great at­trac­tions for res­i­dents and visi­tors alike: the re­de­vel­oped Chicago River­walk.

Q: Looking ahead to 2020, what is the most crit­i­cal is­sue that needs to be ad­dressed for Chicago arts and what per­son or in­sti­tu­tions are best equipped now to have an im­pact on this is­sue?

A: Ev­ery­day public ac­cess to in­ten­tional art and de­sign ex­pe­ri­ences is one of the pil­lars that up­hold Chicago as a world-class city. It re­mains one of the re­sound­ing suc­cesses of our lo­cal cul­ture, achieved via suc­cess­ful part­ner­ships be­tween civic lead­er­ship; pri­vate com­pa­nies; non­prof­its and the ar­chi­tects, de­sign­ers and artists who con­cep­tu­al­ize and re­al­ize the projects. The op­por­tu­nity re­mains, how­ever, to con­tinue un­earthing and nur­tur­ing art and de­sign ta­lent with a broader va­ri­ety of back­grounds and per­spec­tives. We see many or­ga­ni­za­tions and pro­grams on the lead­ing edge of this op­por­tu­nity, among them Mar­wen, iNOMA, the ACE Men­tor Pro­gram, Theaster Gates and Chicago Loop Al­liance’s AC­TI­VATE, to name a few.

E. JA­SON WAMBSGANS/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

E. JA­SON WAMBSGANS/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Gensler global de­sign firm prin­ci­pals Grant Uh­lir, left, and Sh­eryl Schulze and de­sign di­rec­tor Les­lie Ventsch in the re­vi­tal­ized Old Post Of­fice over the Eisen­hower Ex­press­way.

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