Chicago is well known for its architectural heritage, though our actions sometimes belie this. In a city that has demolished more notable structures than others have even erected, we revere some of our gems while allowing others to decay.
The Old Post Office has existed in both of those states. Sitting fallow for years, its 2.8 million square feet long sat empty, serving no greater purpose than as the occasional backdrop for a Christopher Nolan Batman movie. Previous attempts to renovate the Art Deco gem fell through until New-York-based 601W Companies acquired the property in 2016.
Since then, a massive, $800 million repositioning has been underway. And though much of the building’s interior is still not quite ready for occupancy, these efforts have already paid off, attracting tenants such as Walgreens, Uber, Ferrara Candy and Cboe, among others.
One tenant who has moved in is AbelsonTaylor, a Chicago-based health and wellness advertising agency. Skender collaborated with HED and Syska Hennessy Group to deliver their 85,000-square-foot space in February. Before this client could occupy this space, an immense level of pre-planning and cooperation was involved.
A big portion of what the design-build team needed to do up front was survey the in-place materials, especially in the northern portion of the space. The north building, designed by the legendary Chicago studio of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, was constructed first in 1921, before later additions to the south in the 1930s. As such, standards governing the preservation of historical features are more stringent in this section of the building.
In AbelsonTaylor’s space, that includes mosaic tiles and marble wainscoting in the main elevator lobby. The tile is only produced in one location in the U.S. and procurement is only possible following a three- to four-month lead time.
“It took a lot of upfront coordination to make sure that we could turn this space over as pretty as it is,” said Lauren Torres, senior project manager and team leader at Skender.
Skender also had to preserve and/or replicate crown molding that runs through the offices, but they were able to make this feature work for them, hiding some data cabling within. However, most of the tenant’s data needs are carried via more typical cable trays, though here, too preservation requirements stipulated a white liner obscuring the cables from view.
“These cable runs were purposely designed and coordinated with the design team and ourselves to keep all of these conduits nice and clean and as minimal as possible, avoiding the ‘spaghetti-ness’ that you can sometimes see in an open ceiling,” said Torres.
AbelsonTaylor occupies the entire sixth floor of the north building and a portion of the south building’s fifth floor. Though they span different floors, the unique features of the Old Post Office’s construction and HED’s design helped unify the space as one.
In the north building, there are 12 feet from floor to deck while the south building has 19-foot ceilings in most places. A concrete wall that separates the two buildings was partially removed and staircases installed connecting the two offset floors. From the north building, one can overlook AbelsonTaylor’s collaboration area, a thoroughfare of seating areas and tables that bisects the entire space.
Also visible from this vantage point are a series of pods in the south building. The walls of these work areas do not extend to the deck above, but are instead open up the ceiling and the MEP equipment that was thoughtfully laid out overhead.
“A lot of clients that are building in the south building are proceeding with construction in this way,” said Torres. “This allows light from the west side of the post office windows to shine through and keep the interior from being too dark.”
Though less demanding, there are historical preservation requirements in the south building as well. All walkways must be polished concrete, though tenants are allowed to have carpet inlays in select areas. Among the 600,000+ square feet of client space that Skender has delivered or is currently working on within the post office—including Walgreens—that concrete has had a different finish.
Historical requirements also prohibit the introduction of certain materials. For example, the design-build team was not allowed to use spray-applied thermal and acoustical insulation products like SonaSpray. For AbelsonTaylor’s offices, ceilings in the south building are left open and unfinished, with MEP equipment and occasionally sound baffles and light fixtures hanging below. Finished, painted drywall or plaster was required in the north building to obscure the underside of the deck.
Some tenant spaces are partially occupied by original features such as mail chutes or overhead catwalks that had to be preserved. In the case of AbelsonTaylor’s offices, a massive vault was left in place, transformed into what is possibly the most secure huddle room in Chicago.
AbelsonTaylor is a very collaborative company, so there are few private offices. Most of the space is filled with open-office workstations, collaboration areas, conferencing and two café/social hubs. Befitting their business line, there are also photography and editing rooms, in addition to storage and server space.
The Old Post Office literally serves as a gateway to Chicago, hulking over the western edge of the CBD as thousands of vehicles exit the Eisenhower Expressway every day and travel beneath on Ida B. Wells Drive. It is encouraging to see one of the city’s largest, most prominent and most historic structures once again brimming with life.