Sunday, April 21, 2013

Activated Virgin

click images for larger view
For a time, rumors circulated that it had all fallen through, the plan to convert the Art Deco Old Dearborn Bank Building at Wabash and Lake into a hotel.  It was all the way back in 2011 when Richard Branson had announced that the 27-story property would become a 250 room flagship in his Virgin Hotel chain, a $89.7 million project aided by $6.5 in property tax breaks from the building's designation as a national landmark.  Then - nothing.  Even after street scaffolding sealed off the building at beginning of this year, one hospitality website described the status as “crickets, not construction.”

Then, late last month, beams started to poke out from the windows six floors below the roof . . .
. . . and now, the entire top has blossomed into scaffolding, shrouded in red like a raw spring blossom . . .
photograph: Bob Johnson
As seen in photographs from our indefatigable correspondent Bob Johnson, crews of workman can now be seen on moveable platforms clinging to the facades, stripping away brick from the corners . . .
photograph: Bob Johnson
According to the Landmark Commission's usual superb report, Old Dearborn is one of only two office buildings - the other being the Paramount Building in New York City - designed by the architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp, best known for ornate movie palaces like the Chicago and the Oriental.

The Old Dearborn Bank followed novelist Raymond Motley's famous line, “Live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.”  The bank was founded in 1919 by the founder of Kraft cheese, boomed during the Roaring 20's, bought the lot at Wabash and Lake in 1925, spent $1.5 million on the new building, opened it in 1928, and was liquidated four years later.  The bank space became retail, while the office floors continued to cater to medical professionals and small businesses.

Flash forward to 2001, when an investor group paid $$9.5 million for the 186,000-square-foot building, and over the next decade let multiple deals worth as much as $22 million slip through their fingers.  Two separate hotel companies were interested at different times, and a third investor proposed converting the building to student housing.  In 2009, Old Dearborn, a/k/a/ 203 North Wabash went into foreclosure, and in 2010 the loan - and the property - was taken over Urban Street Group LLC.  By that time, as a result of the declining economy and non-renewal of leases to clear out tenants to make way for the anticipated residential conversion, occupancy had fallen to 38%.  Urban Street announced its attention to convert Old Dearborn to apartments, but just a year later, it sold the building to Virgin.

A super-slim 48 by 140 feet, Old Dearborn is today actually better suited to a hotel than to office tenants requiring larger floorplates.  The steel frame is expressed in piers of handsome brick that rise without horizontal interruption, emphasizing verticality in classic Chicago skyscraper style.
The facades are as restrained as a bank - until the animals get loose.  They're all over the place - massive strange birds, lions, griffins, human grotesques, dragons and . . . squirrels.  Lots of squirrels.
(As AIA/Chicago's Laurie Peterson has pointed out to me, squirrels - always burying their assets for later access - are a well-known symbol for banks.  They also figure prominently on such buildings as Halsey, McCormack and Helmer's Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower in Brooklyn.  Since the end of World War II a squirrel has featured prominently -if with increasing abstraction - in the logo of France's second largest bank, Groupe Caisse d'├ępargne.)

You can admire Old Dearborn's clean lines, but, ultimately, it's the over-the-top ornament that is the building's glory.
. . . did we mention ducks? . . .
The cast bronze spandrel panels appear to be in good shape . . .
. . . but no small number of the terra cotta spandrel panels were apparently damaged, and are now being removed . . .
The Landmarks Commission Permit Review specifications from April of 2012 dictate that replacement masonry “match the size, color, profile, finish and texture of the historic masonry . . . The terra cotta base of the building shall be cleaned with the gentlest means possible.”  There is no reference to preserving the original coffered ceiling, complete with still more plaster animals.  Described in the designation report as ‘severely damaged’, it was  hidden from view by a  drop ceiling long ago.
Lobby Stair, from the Landmarks Commission Designation Report
When Virgin announced it was getting into the hotel business via a new website back in 2010, its stated ambition was to acquire half a billion dollars in properties over the following three years. Chicago was somehow missing from the published list of “major urban markets” targeted for hotels serving travelers in the ‘creative class,’ yet its opening, now scheduled for the first quarter of 2014,  will be the new hotel chain's first. A second property in California remains an unconfirmed rumor.

Richard Branson was in Chicago this past January, touring the building and hitting the major sights - Rahm, the Pritzkers - while raising $800,000 for Branson's Virgin Unite foundation.  In a blog post, Branson wrote about talking to Emanuel on the importance of green energy.  There's also been discussion about making the hotel a high-tech mecca, but so far, few details. The original announcement in 2011 named John Buck as co-developer, but I could find nothing more than the original press release on Buck's website.
There's none of the usual promotional signage at the site with renderings and credits.  Who's doing the preservation work on the terra cotta?  Booth/Hansen has issued press releases announcing they are the architects for the project, but there doesn't appear to be any other mention of the project on their website.  Branson directed readers to watch Twitter under the #virginrumors hashtag for updates, but the latest Tweet, from February 1st, directs readers to a ‘Sneak Peak’ post on the Hotels of the Rich and Famous website that's mistakenly illustrated with photos from the lobby of a completely different property, the Jewelers Building on Wacker.

There's an Apple-like aura of mystery about what's actually going on with at 203 North.  For a project scheduled to come on line in less than a year, a promotional campaign - no matter how spare and controlled - is past due.  If you've got any good info, please pass it on.  We're just hoping Branson lights up the angry birds along the roof line.  All those great, weird animal ornaments are ready-made branding devices.


Matt Maldre said...

Nice photos of this building! Here, I walk by it every day going home from the Tribune Tower to the loop, and I never really noticed all the details. Next time I'm gonna look up!

Anonymous said...

I have loved and often photographed the decorative elements of this building...I also adore the modern parking garage next door as well--looks like the front of an auto.

Anonymous said...

Where do i submit my resume for the Concierge position?! {;-)