Adaptive Reuse of a 1911 Insurance Building Adds a Modern Boutique Hotel to Michigan Avenue

Hotel Julian Chicago

The Michigan Avenue wall is an iconic part of what makes Chicago such a special place. It is full of beautiful examples of historic architecture, modern interventions and terra-cotta-clad buildings. The Hotel Julian is the renovation, addition and adaptive reuse of one of these iconic structures: Marshall and Fox’s Federal Life Insurance Building of 1911, designed by the noted Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall.

This once beautiful terra-cotta-clad structure sat vacant and in major disrepair after a failed redevelopment attempt. Saving it from the wrecking ball; adding five-floors plus a penthouse to the top of the existing structure; and transforming it into the Hotel Julian, a boutique 218-room hotel named after St. Julian, the patron saint of travelers, has helped extend the character of the Michigan Avenue wall north of Millennium Park.

Graphics extend throughout the building from the entrance to the elevator doors, stairwells and even the toilet rooms. PHOTO: Daniel Kelleghan

Doing so has helped to preserve a part of Chicago’s architectural history and provide activity and a human scale to a stretch of the boulevard south of the Chicago River, that has long been neglected.

Design Concepts

The 12-story steel-frame and clay-arch building was originally designed by Marshall and Fox for a future 4-story addition. Original construction drawings for the building were obtained through the Benjamin Marshall archives located at the University of Texas. Annotative references to the future addition were included in the archive but no graphics could be found. Party-wall agreements for the north and south walls include a statement and table indicating the design capacity of 16 floors plus a roof.

Because there were no images of the building with its future 4-story addition, the final design was left to the imagination of the team. The addition was necessary because the economics of the deal and the ability to successfully develop and run a hotel required a minimum number of keys that could not be provided within the shell of the existing building.

Several different design concepts were considered, including the continuation of the terra-cotta skin on the addition, cladding the addition with a modern glass curtainwall and even recladding the entire building. In the end, the design team decided that extending the terra cotta on the new floors would drastically change the proportions of the existing building.

Working with the building’s existing façade and adding a new, modern and different glass curtainwall on top would be more reverential to the original design and something, we believe, Benjamin Marshall would have advocated. The final design clads the addition in a faceted, chamfered glass curtainwall and extends it down through the framework of the original terra-cotta-clad façade in the form of faceted glass windows within the original punched openings, perfectly aligned with the curtainwall above. The design of the curtainwall and the new punched windows was inspired by the chamfered ends of the building’s restored terra-cotta colonettes. These angular planes of glass, which ultimately connect through the entire façade from the third floor to beyond the roof, formally integrate the new with the old.

The rooms are clean and contemporary with traditional details, like subway tile and black metal. PHOTO: Nicholas James

A detailed review and analysis of the existing terra cotta was performed onsite to determine which pieces could remain, which could be repaired in place, which needed to be removed and repaired, and which needed to be replaced. The original drawings were invaluable in developing the details and process for the repair and replacement program. In the end, the new and repaired terra cotta blends seamlessly with the existing, restoring that portion of the façade to what it must have looked like in 1911.

Creative Solutions

When the project team started on the design in 2016, the existing structure was in bad shape because of the partial demolition performed by a previous developer. Thirty to 40 percent of the terra cotta was missing or damaged, including on the first three floors, which had been removed during a mid-century modern renovation done in the 1960s. Large holes had been cut into the clay-tile-arch floor structures. The roof was leaking, windows were missing and wet construction debris was piled in the basement.

From this starting point, figuring out how to insert new vertical transportation elements within the compromised existing structure, reinforce the existing structural elements and then add five floors on top of it—all within a very limited footprint—required detailed coordination between the contractor, architect and engineers. A thorough review of the existing drawings, extensive field observations of the existing conditions and a detailed structural analysis revealed that the existing structure was indeed able to support the weight of the originally proposed 4-story addition.

In fact, by switching to lighter composite construction, a fifth floor could be added, and the existing structure was able to accept the imposed gravity loads. However, the original design did not account for the increased lateral load imposed by the addition. A hybrid lateral system consisting of new steel-braced frames running continuously through the building as part of a new elevator core was combined with new steel knee braces at existing columns and beam connections to solve this issue.

Once the structural design requirements that would allow for the addition were determined, creative construction techniques were needed because of the small footprint that would not allow for a tower crane and provided very limited staging areas. The site is surrounded on two sides by existing buildings and the other two sides by streets (Garland Court and Michigan Avenue) that could not be obstructed.

The general contractor and design team worked together to reinforce the existing structure to support mobile cranes on the highest constructed floor to erect the floor above. Then the crane was raised to continue construction upward. Additional reinforcing was required when, after the original roof was removed, it was determined that the existing columns were not completely vertical, causing imposed eccentric loading that needed to be rectified before the addition could be built.

About the Author

Howard Hirsch, AIA, ALA, LEED AP, David Genc, AIA
Howard Hirsch, AIA, ALA, LEED AP, is founder and president of Hirsch MPG and David Genc, AIA, is a principal of the firm.

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