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From Catalogs to Computers

The massive Montgomery Wards warehouse, where the mail-order catalog business was spawned, is retooled for the Information Age

October 01, 2003 |

A mammoth, nearly century-old industrial building on the banks of the Chicago River has been turned into a center for high-tech firms and residential condominiums. This metamorphosis, in a neighborhood that until a few years ago was shunned by developers, has been recognized with a Grand Award in BD&C's 20th Annual Reconstruction & Renovation Awards competition.

The Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog warehouse, constructed in 1908, has been recast as a mixed-use development. Its south portion, which was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1978, is called 600 West. It houses high-tech and other commercial tenants.

The north section, which lacks landmark status, consists of additions made in 1917, 1940, and the 1970s. Its 298 apartments, priced from $262,000 to $690,000, comprise a residential development called Domain.

The west façade of the building, which follows a bend in the river, is nearly 1,100 feet long. In its heyday, the ground-level shipping platform could accommodate 24 railroad freight cars. The company remained exclusively a mail order business until 1926, when it opened its department first store, in Indiana.

At the time of its construction, the building was the world's largest reinforced concrete structure. It is also a good example of the Chicago school of industrial architecture.

A critical first step for both the owners and the design team was to quickly document the building in CAD — primarily to establish the building's square footage, according to Grant Uhlir, project principal for Gensler, the architect for 600 West. Sizing up the 150,000-sq-ft. floor plates required more than a notepad and tape measure. A four-to-six man crew moved through the building on roller blades using lasers to shoot dimensions and downloading the data into laptop computers strapped to their waists. The information was converted into CAD drawings at the Gensler office. "Within less than eight weeks, we had an electronic 3-D representation of the building," says Uhlir, who estimates that a conventional survey might have taken six months to complete.

"It was a major challenge to quickly get our arms around this 1.5 million-sq.-ft. building and develop a cohesive master plan that could be implemented over a number of years, and also be adaptable to a changing market conditions," Uhlir adds.

Exterior restoration was high on the list of project priorities, requiring close coordination with city and state preservation officials. Original brick was exposed by removing 120,000 sq. ft. of nearly inch-thick paint. Because sandblasting the brick was prohibited, a chemical cleaner was used. Terra cotta ornamentation was also restored. All original 1906 single-pane windows were replaced with replicas that matched their four-section pattern. New elements, such as entrances, canopies, and exterior signage, were required to be distinctly different from original features.

On the interior, brick firewalls used to define tenant space played into the loft architecture the designer wanted to create, Uhlir says. They were sandblasted and left exposed.

An eight-story circular atrium that highlights 600 West's main lobby incorporates a five-story media wall with 12 plasma screens that deliver images from television and other graphics, including weather reports, train schedule information, and Web sites of building tenants. Walls adjacent to the elevator lobby are lined with sheets of translucent plastic that are backlit with LEDs, allowing color shifts that create a high-tech effect. Old electrical apparatus removed from the building and displayed on an adjacent wall pays homage to an earlier, less complex era. Large tenant spaces were oriented around this core, which houses elevators, stairways, and toilet facilities.

Tony Andrus, project manager for 600 West's Chicago-based structural engineer, Klein and Hoffman, notes that the lower floors are designed for loads five times greater than design loads for a typical office. He says the structure was in good overall condition, and its rebar was equivalent in strength to current reinforcing. "We thought something built before World War I would have fairly mild steel, but they had used very strong steel, which surprised us," he says.

Round columns found in newer sections of the warehouse reflect an improvement in technology compared to the octagonal columns used in the original section. Octagonal columns were used in conjunction with column-to-column beams. By the 1940s, however, bay spaces were slightly larger, beams had been eliminated, and flat plate, two-way concrete slabs were used.

Telecom tenants were originally programmed to occupy about 40% of 600 West, on floors two through four, with more typical office space on floors five through eight. The collapse of the dotcom bubble dictated a change of plans. Telecom firms often provide their own HVAC equipment to meet specialized requirements, says Morris Toporek, project manager with mechanical/electrical engineer Environmental Systems Design, Chicago. As a greater proportion of conventional office tenants moved in, they were accommodated with more centralized systems. Nevertheless, the building is technologically robust, a "tremendous infrastructure looking for users," says Toporek.

Tenants currently occupy 650,000 sq. ft. of 600 West's office and retail space, with 700,000 sq. ft. remaining available. Retail tenants include a Japanese restaurant, a grocery, a convenience store, and a dry cleaner. Maintaining a relationship to the city street grid, storefronts are located in punched openings at approximately one-block intervals.

Individual elements of the overall project were fast-tracked, and contract administration was complicated by the number of entities involved, according to James Sikich, VP of W.E. O'Neil Construction Co., the project's construction manager, which also acted as general contractor for portions of the work.

In December 2000, 16 months after emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Wards went out of business. Chicago-based Centrum Properties purchased the 31-acre Wards property, paying $92 million for the catalog house and two other buildings. New York City-based Taconic Investment Partners signed on as developer of 600 West. Angelo, Gordon & Co. is an equity partner.

Triggering a turnaround

The catalog house is just one element of the massive redevelopment taking place in Chicago's hip-hoppin' River North district, which a few years ago was "the kind of neighborhood where you rolled up your windows, locked your doors, and got through it as quickly as possible," says John McLinden, a partner with Centrum. Across the street are the eight-story, 1929 administration building, which is being converted to 241 residential apartments, and the 27-story former headquarters, designed by Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1972. McLinden projects that the buildout of all the projects on the Wards property will represent an investment of about $1 billion. The blocks adjoining these key buildings are exploding with new and renovated low-, mid-, and high-rise residential buildings.

600 West was planned with the expectation that the telecom industry would deliver a stronger and more sustained performance. "Unfortunately, the market moved on us," says Jeff Sussman, a principal with Taconic. If they were to develop a similar project in the current environment, "we'd be more cognizant of the shallowness of the telecom market, and focus more on office tenants," he adds.

The City of Chicago is expected to provide $32 million of tax-increment financing for infrastructure improvements, including construction of a riverwalk alongside the building.

Local firm Pappageorge Haymes, Ltd., served as architect for the Domain residential portion of the project, with Thornton-Tomasetti Group, New York, N.Y., as structural engineer.

Construction Costs

HVAC $8,000,000
Electrical 10,000,000
Roofing 1,750,000
Concrete 1,000,000
Steel 250,000
Demolition, plumbing, windows, elevators, etc. 54,200,000
Total $75,000,000

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