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The Old Main Post Office: Before and After

For 20 years, the 2.5 million square–foot facility has sat empty. Soon, it will take shape as a sleek new office building.

Above: The Old Main Post Office lobby, pictured here before renovation, has been restored to its original elegance.
Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

After sitting idle for twenty years, Chicago’s Old Main Post Office, a hulking Art Deco-era structure along the Chicago River’s South Branch, is preparing for its next life as a sleek, state of the art office building. The old post office’s elaborate marble-clad main lobby has been fully restored to its original Roaring Twenties extravagance, but an army of roughly 200 construction workers arrive to the site each day to finish building out the rest of the massive 2.5 million square foot facility.

Leading the design efforts is the Chicago office of global architecture firm Gensler, whose experience in major adaptive reuse projects and years of prior research and design work specifically related to the Old Main Post Office helped them secure the job. And at the helm of the Gensler team is Sheryl Schulze, a South Side native with more than 30 years of experience. Responsible for coordinating with numerous consultants and city staffers, Schulze says that their approach to tackling the renovation was to divide and conquer.  

“It takes a lot collaboration and becoming really good friends with the people you’re working with,” Schulze said of the numerous moving parts and different contractors involved. “Being a highly complex project with a huge lift and short amount of time to address safety concerns, we had some people who were automatically on the front lines while we figured out the best way to approach individual efforts and assign dedicated teams.”

Schulze says that at one point, more than 25 members of Gensler’s Chicago office were assigned to the project. Other key players include preservation architects McGuire, Igleski & Associates, forensics consultants Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, civil engineers V3 Companies, property manager JLL, and general contractor Bear Construction.

While the lobby was found mostly left intact, making its restoration relatively straightforward, the site’s location straddling Congress Parkway and Amtrak rail lines servicing Union Station presented unique challenges to remediation. Fortunately, when the complex was mothballed by the United States Postal Service, original ornamentation, such as brass medallions, were put into storage. Other items, including lighting fixtures and the lobby’s revolving doors, were sent off-site to be refinished. The restored lobby is also expected to double as an event space in addition to serving as an entry point for the new Post Office, Schulze adds.

Beyond the lobby is a cavernous interior that has been thoroughly gutted and cleared out, awaiting new finishes and building amenities. The new office complex, which is simply titled The Post Office, will feature a dramatic escalator atrium flanked by lounges and a food hall. Amenities exclusive to tenant use include a library, a complete fitness center, and a sprawling green roof complete with a running track. And with a prime riverfront location, the development will contribute a new stretch of riverwalk, as well as a landscaped park space.

The building’s history, amenities, and riverfront location won’t be the only draws for major corporations seeking new office space—today’s companies want sprawling, wide-open floor plans, Schulze says. And with a footprint spanning nearly four football fields, the Post Office will offer some of the largest floor plates in the city’s central core. Schulze says that large, open floor plans allow companies to place hundreds of employees on a single level, emphasizing engagement and connectivity among staff.

Describing the structure as a “Sleeping Beauty,” Schulze says that the redevelopment of the Old Main Post Office is not only significant for representing a major adaptive reuse and revitalization of one of Chicago’s great buildings, but it’s one that is expected to help breathe new life into the sleepy stretch of the South Loop and West Loop Gate.

Alderman Danny Solis (25th Ward) also believes that the redevelopment of the long-shuttered complex is a major achievement for his ward and the city’s downtown by wrapping a number of important elements, such as historic preservation, new office space, and riverfront access into one.

“The post office is a win-win situation,” Solis says. “We took a big white elephant that had been sitting there for decades to producing a number of positive benefits from property tax generation, jobs, and new commercial space.”

Solis says that the project is also another milestone in the city’s long effort in attracting new corporate outposts and jobs to the greater downtown area, and believes that the revitalized  post office complex will not only become an important economic driver, but also an attraction for nearby residents and businesses.

Last month, Walgreens became the first major corporate tenant to announce a major lease at the building, saying that it will move 1,800 employees into a 200,000 square–foot space. While the completed Post Office is still a couple of years away, tenant build-outs are expected to begin in 2019.

Describing herself as “one of the luckiest women in architecture,” Schulze says that working on the project is not only a personal and professional highlight, but one that everyone is rooting for.

“Being a Chicago girl, it’s an absolute honor—everyone in the city is behind this.”

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