The Old Chicago Main Post Office, designed by the famed Chicago firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, is a one-of-a-kind building in the historic context of Chicago. Originally completed in 1921, it underwent a monumental expansion in 1932 to meet the city's unprecedented postal needs. The meteoric rise of the mail-order industry, spearheaded by the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs, turned Chicago into the distribution center of the nation nearly overnight.
A CRITICAL COMMUNICATIONS LINK FOR 60 YEARS
In its heyday, the property was the largest of its kind in the world, capable of shuttling an astonishing 19 million pieces of mail daily. It is both locally and nationally significant for its historic role in mail delivery. As the main mail facility for Chicago for more than 60 years, it was critical to communication in the United States in the age before the Internet.
In 1997, the Old Post Office was vacated in favor of a new facility with more up-to-date technology, marking the beginning of a three decades’ journey into decay. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. Over the next 15 years, numerous redevelopment proposals failed to take hold. And then ...
Old Chicago Post Office before reconstruction. Photos: Tom Rossiter, courtesy Gensler
NEW HOPE FOR A GRANDE DAME
In the spring of 2016, 601W Companies closed on the 2.6 million-sf property and immediately retained the expertise needed to bring the Post Office back to life. The redevelopment team, headed by Gensler, is comprised of 17 firms, with assistance and guidance from the City of Chicago, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and the National Park Service.
To get the project off the ground after nearly 30 years of abandonment, Bear Construction, the general contractor, and subcontractors worked long hours over many months just to remove debris that was left over from years of neglect. The building was so wet from years of exposure to the elements that there was even concern that new materials would not adhere to existing surfaces or new flooring would buckle and fail. The new mechanical improvements allowed the building to dry out in order for new materials to adhere properly.
Concierge, with postal artifacts. Photo: Eric Laignel, courtesy Gensler
This project is as much about transformation as about the research of what once was.
Gensler created highly detailed documentation of existing equipment related to scales, mail chutes, conveyors, historic corridors, original mosaic tile floors, and plaster ceilings. Selections of these various elements were retained throughout the building to recall a bygone era and to aid in the pursuit of historic tax credits, which the developer, 601W Companies, eventually secured.
Photo: Eric Laignel, courtesy Gensler
A building of this scale and location requires world-class amenities to support an estimated 12,000 tenants. The design of these spaces captures a unique brand fitting the era and purpose of the building. Amenities include full-service concierge, a large conference center, a tenant lounge, and a fitness center.
Completed in 2017, The Vault was the first scope of work to be finished at the Post Office. Its sole purpose was as a marketing suite for the leasing agents. The Vault, surrounded with rich, elegant finishes and archival findings from the Post Office, offers subtle hints to the past and what would soon become the future of the amenity space located on the second floor of the new development.
Lounge area. Note daylighting window treatment. Photo: Eric Laignel, courtesy Gensler
The cherry atop this delicious architectural confection is The Meadow, a 3½-acre rooftop park. The outdoor experience encompasses the entirety of the building—three blocks long and one block wide—and showcases a basketball court, native plantings, a bistro and bar area, and a running/walking track for tenants and their guests.
The Meadow rooftop garden. Photo: Eric Laignel, courtesy Gensler
To make the building suitable for commercial office leasing, the 250,000-sf floor plates allow for sweeping views to natural light, strategically placed infrastructure, and vertical transportation.
The reimagined Old Post Office opened in November 2019 and was 80% leased within 18 months. Tenants include Uber, Walgreens, Ferrara Candy Co., HomeChef, and Cboe Global Markets. The project earned LEED Gold Core & Shell certification.
UNANIMOUS CHOICE FOR PLATINUM AWARD
"An unbelievable transformation!” exclaimed Reconstruction Awards juror Suzanne Germann, Director of Grant Programs, Illinois Landmarks. “The vision for this project is unbeatable. The scale of the building—measured in acres, not square feet—made this renovation too daunting for many developers.”
Façade, Old Post Office Chicago. Photo: Eric Laignel, courtesy Gensler
THE OLD POST OFFICE | CHICAGO, ILL.
PROJECT INFORMATION Size 2.6 million sf Cost $900 million Construction time January 2016 to December 2019 Delivery method Design-bid-build
BUILDING TEAM Submitting firm Gensler (architect, interior architect, interior designer, historic restoration oversight, brand identity) Owner 601W Companies Preservation consultants McGuire Engineers, Igleski & Associates, Wiss Janney Elstner Structural engineer WSP Civil engineer V3 MEP engineer McGuire Engineers Façade/Forensics consultant Wiss Janney Elstner Historic preservation advisor MacRostie Historic Advisors Landscape architect Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects General contractor Bear Construction
Boxcar Fitness center, Old Post Office, Chicago. Photo: Eric Laignel, courtesy Gensler