3 Iconic Chicago Buildings Show That Adaptive Reuse Strengthens Cities

Feb. 20, 2020

Adaptive reuse is strengthening in Chicago, allowing both clients and developers to celebrate the city’s architectural history in a sustainable way while revitalizing spaces for public.

Adaptive reuse is having a distinct moment as a powerful tool for the reinvention of our cities, as well as setting a standard for new future development.

Both nationwide and globally, we’re seeing the restoration and adaption of older structures for uses different than their original purposes, and for Chicago in particular, this means an uptick in horizontal development and revitalization of many urban areas.

Photo: “The Vault,” a second-floor tenant lounge; Credit: Tom Rossiter, courtesy of Gensler.

“Adaptive reuse has many benefits for the urban fabric and clients alike,” says Jackie Koo, IIDA, AIA, founder and principal of KOO LLC. “It helps avoid demolition waste and reuses the embodied energy inherent in manufacturing new things.”

Across the city, from neighborhoods like the up-and-coming Fulton Market district to the Near North Side, clients and developers savvy in both aesthetics and sustainability are looking to the European model of adaptive reuse as an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective alternative to demolition.

Adaptive reuse often redefines how the public is able to engage with vacant buildings and urban centers. Amtrak’s redevelopment of Chicago’s Union Station, for example, will offer new entrances and a food hall, with proposed dining and retail occupying a long-vacant space once damaged by fire.

“Tenants and end-users respond to memorable spaces rich with history, and the reduced carbon footprint offered by utilizing an existing structure makes it a sustainable choice,” explains Sheryl Schulze, a principal and the repositioning and landlord services leader at Gensler. “The uniqueness of older buildings offers historical details and interesting stories that instantly add depth and character you can’t as easily achieve with a new build project.” 

Here are a few adaptive reuse projects in Chicago we’re excited about in 2020:

Old Post Office

The repositioning of the Old Chicago Main Post Office, led by New York-based 601W Cos. and overseen by Gensler, is currently the largest example of adaptive reuse in the nation. The nine-story, art deco building welcomed new tenants in fall 2019—including Uber, Walgreens and the local Ferrara Candy Company.

Originally built in 1921, the structure, which sits downtown on the Chicago River, once served as the main post office for the Midwest. (Photo: The Old Post Office’s restored Art Deco lobby looking west; Credit: Tom Rossiter, courtesy of Gensler)

It was expanded in 1932 to accommodate a significant influx of mail due to the success of Montgomery Ward and Sears in their mail-order businesses but was vacated in 1997 in favor of a more modern facility.

Sitting vacant for nearly two decades, the space has finally received the revamping it deserves, without sacrificing its historic architectural integrity. “The original marble, restored lobby and preserved mail chutes pay homage to the building’s past, while the one-of-a-kind amenities and top tier offices offer a look into the city’s future,” says Schulze.  

And the building doesn’t just provide space for tenants; its generous 2.5-million-square-foot floor plan allows for dynamic engagement beyond its offices. The additions include a rooftop park with a full jogging track and fitness center, and will soon offer retail, a public food hall and an expansion of the Chicago Riverwalk.

“Adaptive reuse projects are increasingly mixed-use, including not only a workplace component, but hospitality, food and beverage, entertainment, wellness and residential spaces,” says Schulze. “These environments are being curated to offer a multitude of experiences to attract and engage diverse populations and shaping neighborhoods and cities as they are used by the local community.”

[On Topic: Re-Imagining Modern Urban Interior]

Willis Tower

In October 2019, the public got its first glimpse of the massive Gensler-led renovation of the base of Chicago’s Willis Tower (though true locals may refer to it as the Sears Tower forever), as new tenants began moving in.

The ambitious renovation reimagines the first five floors of the famous skyscraper, creating a 300,000-square-foot mixed-use space known as “Catalog,” a homage to the building's original tenants, Sears Roebuck Company. The project features a checklist of new amenities, including shopping, dining and immersive entertainment, and promises to create community and offer visitors an “only-in-Chicago” experience.

Through the repositioning, Gensler wanted to redefine the way the building engages with the surrounding neighborhood. “We’ve opened the building up to welcome the community, taking it from a place with dedicated entrances for specific purposes to one where tourists, tenants and locals seamlessly weave between the spaces,” says Todd Heiser, principal, co-managing director and consumer goods leader at Gensler.

Chicago is a city known for its architecture, with the Willis Tower a world-recognized structure, so it was important for Gensler to maintain the dignity of the original building while still presenting new and innovative ideas. 

“When you think about Willis Tower, it’s an iconic design with the incredible structure that makes up the mega-module,” says Heiser. “These core aspects of the space—its literal ‘building blocks’—were previously hidden from public view. We chose to celebrate and highlight them, opening the spine of the building so that the public can engage with it in a more porous manner.”

According to Heiser, adaptive reuse lets designers and developers tell new stories with buildings that have solid foundations and historical relevance, and that the public may already be familiar with. “We have an incredible stock [in Chicago],” he says, “We want to respect that work while honoring our city’s evolution, reimagining the buildings to keep them relevant in the market and delivering on tenant and public expectations.”

Cook County Hospital

After the issuing of a $90 million-dollar interior build-out permit in summer 2018, work began on the Cook County Hospital’s 1825 W. Harrison St. building, which has sat vacant for almost two decades.

Located on Chicago’s Near West Side, the 345,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts structure was designed by Paul Gerhardt in 1914, opening in 1916, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was saved from demolition in 2003 and is now set to become a community hub for residential, medical and commercial use.

The building is set to be transformed into two Hyatt hotels in addition to medical offices and retail space. Architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is leading the design in collaboration with KOO LLC. The hotels are expected to be ready for the public in 2020.

“Our design team worked to highlight the building's historic features,” says Koo. “The space represents an important part of Chicago’s history and will be a catalyst for transformation on the city’s New West Side, and we wanted to honor that.”

Many of the building’s original features, such as its terrazzo floors, vaulted ceilings and marble stairs, are being restored to their original splendor. These features helped Koo’s team weave history into their design. 

“During one of our interior cleans, we discovered beautiful coloration and distinctive patterns, which we eventually used as inspiration for area rugs in the space,” Koo explains. “Historic properties can create unique identities for clients and brands. I think the Jane Jacobs quote says it all: ‘Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.’”

To hear more about adaptive reuse in Chicago from the experts, join IIDA and AIA Chicago for “Repositioned and Reimagined: Willis Tower, Tribune Tower and Old Post Office,” on March 10, part of the second iteration of the Designers & Architects Talk series. Get tickets at

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About the Author: Irena Frumkin is a copywriter and editor for IIDA. She holds degrees in art history from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Temple University.

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