Gothic Revival: Does the Randolph Tower Portend a Residential Renaissance in the Loop?

By Matt Baker

4_Randolph Tower_After_Exterior_Dusk_Leslie SchwartzChicago is home to a building dreamed of in the lavish 1920’s and which subsequently fell into demise during the Great Depression. With the dawn of a new millennium came a possibility for resurgence, but history was about to repeat itself; the soaring stock market took a massive hit and financing for construction projects evaporated. Could this building possibly survive two economic disasters?

Founded in 1919 and named in honor of a Revolutionary War hero, the Steuben Society aspired to combat the negative sentiment in America towards those of German descent following World War I. Every club needs a clubhouse and in this case the corner of Randolph and Wells became home to the Gothic revival Steuben Club building.

It was a mixed-use skyscraper which was still a curiosity at the time. The club operated in the 17-story upper tower, with a ballroom, pool, gymnasium and other amenities while the 28-story base of the building housed German-owned businesses.

Unfortunately for both the Steuben Club and its namesake building, the Great Depression arrived just months after the building’s ribbon cutting. The club folded, companies—German-owned and otherwise—went out of business and the building struggled to fill its space.

5_Randolph Tower_After_Gargoyles_Buttresses_Leslie SchwartzThe stock of tenants dropped over the years, but that wasn’t the only thing about the building that would fall. In 2001, pieces of the terra cotta façade fell off. City officials temporarily closed the adjacent CTA tracks and sidewalk, and ordered the building’s owners to address the problem. Unable to afford the repairs, they instead entered bankruptcy and sold the property off.

Metal straps and protective nets held the building together, a temporary solution that proved much more enduring as funds for the repairs disappeared after the biggest stock market crash in over 75 years. Following a decade of waiting, however, the transformed Randolph Tower emerged from its green netting chrysalis.

The first task for Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA), the Chicago-based design firm that rehabilitated the structure, was attending to the façade. In addition to the pieces crumbling to the ground, a 1950’s renovation swapped the terra cotta exterior of the first two stories with granite.

“We replaced and/or re-set about 40% of the terra cotta,” said Paul Alessandro, a partner at HPA. Randolph Tower is both a Chicago and national landmark and the original drawings for the 1929 terra cotta tiles were in the national archive in Washington D.C. Copies of the drawings were procured after the donation of a scanner, which the government agency didn’t have in-house.

6_Randolph Tower_After_Lobby_PatsyMcEnroePhotographyThe landmark status applies almost exclusively to the building envelope, though a few interior spaces are protected as well, such as the old Steuben Club ballroom. The ballroom, however, “had been cannibalized and turned into a law office,” Alessandro said. The law firm had dropped a ceiling and hung drywall, cutting a squared-off space out of the elegant curves and coves of the original room. In addition, the tank of the pool was above the room, and leaks had damaged the original ceiling.

That was a greater loss than one would expect, as the Steuben Club had commissioned Gustave Brand to paint a mural on the ballroom ceiling. His massive painting was an allegorical depiction of German art, culture and industry, showing innovations in agriculture, architecture and other disciplines. Mythical gods and goddesses were also on display, along with the city’s then most prominent buildings, including the Wrigley Building, the Jewelers Building and of course the new Steuben Club.

11_Randolph Tower_After_Pool_PatsyMcEnroePhotographyWhile the ballroom could be recreated with bits and pieces discovered behind the drywall, much of the mural was damaged and unsalvageable. What could be saved is displayed in the lobby, hallways and in the revamped ballroom, which now does duty as a fitness center. One piece, however, is installed in Alessandro’s house. “It has physicians,” he said, which he describes as figures with “dark, hooded-features [and] body parts in their hands. Nobody thought it was appropriate to hang in the building.”

That’s saying quite a bit, actually, as the interior design is, if nothing else, eclectic. If the exterior is Gothic revival, the new interior is Baroque remixed. There are canary-yellow wingback chairs in the lobby and giant chess pieces arranged in the grid of the ballroom’s original terrazzo floor. Nowhere is this splashy style more evident than the “Sky Club,” a mix of common areas including a media room, kitchen and conference space. Here, textured wall tiles transition to wood veneer; one dark nook features a poker table and black-on-black wallpaper with a repeating skull design.
“Those murals really set the tone for the interior design,” said Alessandro. “They set the color scheme and decorative scheme.” This is most evident in the elevator cabs, which feature a piece of art from the mural, given a Lichtensteinian, pop-art effect. Nothing better displays the building’s mix of old and new.

The interior design is flashy, but the more mundane aspects of the building’s renewal are just as important. The 45-story building, from the lobby up through the telescoping tower, was virtually gutted. “The building was in good shape, structurally,” Alessandro said. “These old, concrete-encased steel buildings are pretty sturdy.”

9_Randolph Tower_After_Multipurpose Room_PatsyMcEnroePhotography_smallFrom realigning poorly laid-out plumbing to connecting the disjointed stairways, nothing about rehabbing a building of this vintage is easy. This was one of the factors that led to a Louis Sullivan Award at the AIA 2013 Honor Awards. “The jury recognized the daunting challenges of the rehabilitation of Randolph Tower and was impressed by its ambitious scale and complexity,” said Brandy Koch, AIA Illinois President.

“Modern health codes are nothing like they were in 1927. Getting the pool to work again was a huge nightmare,” said Alessandro. But the pool functions once again and offers the tower residents a rare amenity with its large skylight overhead. The developers were able to carve a veranda out of found space adjacent to the pool, featuring a spa and great views.

This is a skyscraper that tried to deftly meld old with new, but that doesn’t end with interior design. The latest building techniques take sustainability into account and this project was no different.

“First off, we saved this building,” said Alessandro. The building’s landmark status served as a mandate preventing demolition, but the environmental impact of rehabbing rather than rebuilding shouldn’t be ignored. A lot of the material that went into the build-out was chosen for its recycled content. Carpet tiles were manufactured using recycled fibers and secondhand materials went into everything from composite wood veneers to the units’ cabinetry. Some veneer, such as in the lobby, is virgin material but this was sustainably forested. All paints, fabrics, surfaces and other materials are low-VOC.

The proximity to the CTA tracks may have been a headache when the façade was falling away in 2001, but now it is a boon to the property’s walkability score. The building also has access to car sharing and a ride share program has been set up in the building. Bicycle storage comes with changing rooms for bike commuters.

“We exceed the minimum energy requirements by about 20% in this building,” said Alessandro. New insulation went into the envelope and modern windows were installed that greatly improved the performance over the originals.

The boilers, as well as the cooling system, are all high efficiency. Water fixtures are low flow and tenants receive a welcome packet educating them on how to obtain green cleaning products as well as the building’s recycling program. Lighting in common areas is controlled by occupancy sensors and all fixtures are either fluorescent or LED. The overall wattage per square foot is about 20% under minimum requirements.

Randolph Tower is just the latest in a streak of residential and hotel projects in the Loop. “I think the hotel boom is around for another five to seven years. Then after that, all the old hotels will go on modernization programs,” said Alessandro. Now that developers are more open to non-commercial projects in the Loop, this trend should continue until the market is saturated. “I’m not sure what that saturation level is,” continued Alessandro. “Right now we’re not seeing any real slow down for apartments.”

Despite two economic drubbings, neither the completion of Randolph Tower nor that of any of the other myriad Loop residential projects should be taken as a sign that we are safely out of the recession. Rehabilitating a 45-story, landmarked, 80+ year-old building on Class A property requires a lot of money.

Village Green, the development firm that also manages the building, benefitted from several sources of public financing, including dips into two TIF funds, tax credits and municipal bonds. A grant from the Illinois Housing Development Authority came with the condition that some of the units be available at affordable housing levels, capped at 40% of median income. It’s oddly fitting that a building forged at the dawn of the greatest economic downturn would resurrect itself today much the same way the nation did back then.

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