Monday, May 27, 2013

How Do You Get to AMA Plaza? High-tech, decline, and revival at Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building

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The second of what now looks to be three parts.  Read Part One - Apotheosis of the Skyscraper: The Rise of Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building 

The Cutting Edge Technology behind the IBM Building

Functionally, Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building was ahead of its time, and to a large degree, it was because of the client.   By the time construction began on its new Chicago Headquarters in 1969, IBM was booming.  Over the previous decade, its workforce had doubled to a quarter-million people, and sales had nearly quadrupled, to over $7 billion. With profits of nearly a billion dollars, there plenty of cash for a trophy tower like the one they hired Mies to design, which consolidated its 4,500 Chicago area employees from 15 different locations into one structure. 

After suffering criticism over how, in the glare of the sun, the almost floor-to-ceiling glass at the two towers of his path-breaking 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive heated up the apartments like ovens, Mies wondered aloud in who-will-rid-me-of-this-troublesome-priest fashion why someone didn't come up with a solution.  By the time IBM got going, they had.

At the IBM, the windows were bronzed-tinted both to color co-ordinate with the facade's bronze-anodized aluminum and to filter out UV rays.  Instead of the then standard single-glazed, metal
curtain wall, which leaked unwanted heat and cold into the interior, windows at the IBM were double-glazed, an insulating air pocket between the panes.  A plastic PVC thermal barrier was
photograph: Commission on Chicago
Landmarks Designation Report
inserted between the exterior and interior layers of the curtain wall, blocking the radiation of heat or cold along the metal.

One of the great enemies of all buildings is moisture.  Skyscrapers compounded the problem. As high winds rush along the facades, air pressure rises along the surface relative to the interior, forcing water through the countless tiny imperfect gaps.  At the IBM, the small holes were made  a deliberate part of the design, engineered into the curtain wall to direct the air to flow into the voids of the panels, equalizing  pressure and minimizing condensation.

The HVAC system, designed by co-architects and structural engineers C.F. Murphy, was equally innovative.  The IBM was all-electric, including the boilers.  Working with Carrier Corp., a state-of-the-art air conditioning system was developed that captured and recycled heat generated by workers and computers - including two full floors of mainframes in IBM's data center - and redirected it where needed.  A weather station on the roof and a series of monitors throughout the building streamed data to a central IBM 1800 series computer that continuously analyzed the feedback to optimize conditions floor-by-floor and space-by-space.  The series 1800 also ran the IBM's security system, described admiringly, if a bit anxiously, as ‘practically Orwellian.’

None of this came cheap.  “The building was . . . fairly expensive at that time,” recalls Dirk Lohan, who as Mie's grandson had come from Germany to Chicago in 1957 to work in his grandfather's office.  “I think it cost $33.00 a square foot.”  (The gold - bronze? - standard was Mies's Seagram Building in New York, which a decade earlier had come in at $45.00 per square foot.)  The curtain wall alone cost 35 to 50% more than typical single-glazed facades of the time.

It quickly paid off, however, especially after the 1973 Oil Embargo sent energy prices soaring.  In the three coldest months of the winter of 73-74, the IBM used 42% less energy to heat than the average of a sample of 13 comparable buildings.  The structure won the Federal Energy Commission's first Midwest Excellence Award for Energy Conservation.  The aluminum cladding proved much more durable than the painted steel of the Federal Center, which required expensive rehabs over the last decade.
In 2002,  the IBM found way to become more sustainable when Thermal Chicago Corporation constructed their P5 water plant under the plaza, a 15,000 ton capacity facility that's part of what's described as the ‘world's largest interconnected district cooling system’.  Thermal Chicago provides a constant supply of 34 degree water to over 45,000,000 square feet of space in 100 buildings, via a 14 mile system of pipes connected to five different plants throughout the Loop and River North.  Heat exchangers are used to transfer the cold from the Thermal Chicago system to the pipes of the water systems of the served buildings.  Unlike the other four plants, which cool water with ice generated in the middle-of-night when energy charges are at their lowest, the 1,600-ton Trane chillers in the P5 facility under IBM Plaza pull chilly water from the Chicago River.
map courtesy Thermal Chicago Corporation
The final working drawings for the IBM were finished in July of 1969.  The following August 17th, Mies van der Rohe died at Wesley Memorial Hospital, aged 83.  On October 22, 1971, the first of 2,100 IBM employees began to move into the new building.   Less than a year later, September 20, 1972, a band played and a fireboat shot streams of colored water as a large crowd that included IBM Chairman T. Vincent Learson and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley gathered on the plaza for the IBM Building's formal dedication and the unveiling of sculptor Marino Marini's bust of Mies, which remains on display in the lobby to this day.

IBM got away with not including the minimum of 402 parking spaces Chicago zoning required for a  new building the size of their's by developing a garage on a smaller site just across Kinzie to the north, originally purchased for a possible second future tower.   The resulting $3.5 million, 12-story IBM Self-Park, designed by architect George Shipporeit of Lake Point Tower fame, may be the perfect bustle - detached by a cross street. As we've written previously in The Ninotchka of River North, the structure, with its facade of closely-spaced strips of Corten steel, is reviled by many.  During the day it can look a bit monolithic.  At night however, when the Corten strips dissolve under the back-lighting into a delicate cage animated by the moving headlights, it becomes a stunning backdrop to the IBM.  As Mies hides structure behind an I-beamed curtain wall, Schipporeit reveals it framing voids of light.  To me, the artistry and the counterpoint makes this one of the most magical places in Chicago.

The Agony of Real Estate and the Years of Decline

In 1996, IBM sold the building to Blackstone Real Estate Advisors for $120 million.   In 2009, Blackstone turned around and sold it to Prime Group Realty Trust for $239 million.  Between then and now, Prime has been through a succession of actions  - some successful, some abortive, often accompanied by heated litigation - to sell, buy back or take back the company that make a fascinating story that's simply too dizzying to recount here.  Prime's continuing control of the IBM is the only constant.

At the dawn of the new Millennium, a negotiation between two of the new century's more energetic scoundrels saw Conrad Black, a/k/a Baron Black of Crossharbour,  a/k/a federal prisoner number 18330-424, capping his looting of the Sun-Times by selling its building to Donald Trump, who wasted little time in pulling it down to dust.
Chicago Sun-Times Building catching on fire during demolition
Suddenly, IBM tenants were facing the prospect of no longer gazing out their windows past the low-slung Sun-Times structure towards the gleaming, cream-colored elegance of the Wrigley Building, but into the rooms of and residences of the telescoping Trump International Hotel and Tower, soaring 40 stories and nearly 500 feet above the IBM's rooftop.  Before an office component was dropped from the Trump project, it was reported it was being marketed to IBM tenants by reminding them how the Trump would be blocking their views.
Gradually, IBM's presence at its namesake building declined.  In 2005, the last 700 employees relocated to the new Hyatt Center on Wacker, leaving behind 280,000 square feet of vacant space and a building now renamed after its address, 330 North Wabash.   Shortly thereafter, mega-law firm Jenner & Block, at 325,000 square feet 330's largest tenant, announced they would be leaving for a new skyscraper at 353 North Clark designed, ironically enough, by the firm of Dirk Lohan.  A deal with Mesirow Financial to become the IBM's new anchor tenant and assume naming rights also fell through when Mesirow decided instead to join Jenner & Block at 353 North Clark.

Prime Group, visions of doom dancing in their head, went through a succession of unsuccessful fixes.  First it toyed with selling off the building in pieces as office condos.   When that went nowhere, the plan became converting floors 3 through 14 into 275 condominiums, and switching more floors to residential as they became vacant.  When that went nowhere, Prime teamed up with Oxford Capital to turn the floors into a hotel.  In the fall of 2007, they launched an effort to get 330 North Wabash made an official Chicago landmark in order to qualify for the lucrative Class L  incentives, offering a partial 12 year holiday from property taxes.  Despite intimations from Landmarks Committee Chairman Alderman Anthony Beale that he would block designation until he received assurances that the hotel would be unionized, official designation was approved February 6, 2008, making 330 North the newest building in Chicago to ever become a landmark.

In March of 2008 it was announced that a joint venture between LaSalle Hotel Properties and Oxford Capital was paying $46 million to acquire floors 2 through 13 plus a portion of the first floor for a ‘super-luxury’335-room hotel, which they expected to spend $185 million in creating.

You have to wonder.  Was the name the partners chose for their joint venture - Modern Magic Hotel LLC - a kind of Freudian slip betraying their actual appraisal of their prospects?  Modern Magic wasted no time in getting to work on the building, removing beams to create two-story public spaces for the hotel.  It was a time of record occupancy and room rates, but Chicago's hospitality industry was already working feverishly to remedy that prosperity with 9,000 planned, under construction, or proposed new hotel rooms.  The hotel at 330 was already late to the party, and when the great crash came, the development was put on ice.

So, are you still with me on all this?  Anyway, that's how things stood until December of 2010, when Langham Hotels actually thought they could see the magic in Modern Magic, and bought out LaSalle and Oxford for $58.8 million, an $8 million loss from what the joint venture had already spent on the purchase and build-out.  Oxford retained a minority interest.
And within a year, everything was coming up roses at 330 North Wabash.  Law firm Latham & Watkins LLP announced they were leaving Willis Tower to take up 160,000 square feet at IBM 330 North Wabash, and another 100,000 square feet was leased by association management firm SmithBucklin, leaving the Equitable Building at 401 North Michigan.

Then, in December of last year, le bon temps really started to roulé, when the American Medical Association announced it would be abandoning its namesake 1990 skyscraper designed for them by noted Japanese architect Kenzo Tange to take up to 300,000 square feet at 330 North Wabash, encompassing much of the space Jenner & Block had left empty.  When they officially move in this coming September 3rd, the building will take on its third name:  AMA Plaza.

The AMA may be the frosting on the cake, but the starting point for the turnaround at IBM Plaza, 330 N. Wabash, AMA Plaza was the Langham.  That's another great story, and it will be the third and final - we promise - installment in this series. With lots of pictures.  We promise.  And if you're thinking this series is really, really long, remember that War and Peace, in the Pevear./Volokhonsky translation, comes in at 1,273 pages.

Next: The Apotheosis of the Skyscraper - How Mies's Spartan IBM Gained New Life by Going Soft

Read Also:

Part One -  Apotheosis of the Skyscraper:  The Rise of Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building.

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