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.
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.