Gazing at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel’s historic handcrafted woodwork, ornate plaster, stately marble staircases and restored vintage ceilings, it’s unthinkable that the space was once slated to be torn down. An 1893 treasure, the building began as the Chicago Athletic Association, an exclusive men’s club, complete with a gymnasium, billiards, and lounges for imbibing, conversation and deal-making.Behind the 250-foot tower’s Venetian Gothic facade, decades of additions and renovations for back-of-house staff operations created an odd maze-of-a-building. The association closed its doors in 2007, and private developers subsequently purchased the building claiming it could not be viably saved. Because the structure sits in Michigan Avenue’s historic district, however, they offered to leave the first 25 feet of the building from the avenue intact and build a new building behind it. Then the recession came and funding was cut. When Chicago-based AJ Capital Partners and Geolo Capital, San Francisco, bought the building out of bankruptcy, they pitched a different idea.
“The team wanted to save as much of the building as possible, showcase its historic splendor, and create a destination hotel with public spaces accessible to all of our guests and to local Chicagoans alike,” says Patrick Hatton, Chicago Athletic Association hotel’s general manager.
The 235,300-square-foot project features 241 guestrooms and suites; 17,000 square feet of event space, including two ballrooms and a gymnasium; five restaurants and lounges; a street-level boutique; and a fitness center.
Renovating the building was a massive effort. Chicago’s Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture performed the historic rehabilitation’s space plan and restored the hard interiors, such as wood paneling, plaster ceilings, and marble and mosaic flooring. Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors of New York provided the project’s interior design, including furniture, fixtures and equipment for the hotel rooms, public spaces and restaurants.
“The hardest part of the project was rationalizing the building,” recalls Paul Alessandro, partner at Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture.“The additions spanned a hodge-podge of eras from the 1910s all the way through the 1970s with no relationships to adjacent rooms or to each other. We had to make these areas and the new elements feel like part of a whole and that meant being in service to the building rather than to one’s own design aesthetic.”
Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture’s team took out three entire floors and reassembled them. The team opened up the closeted spaces and connected the historic material to create flow across the building and between the rooms. Old locker rooms, staff bedrooms and overnight rooms for club members became hotel rooms. Public spaces, the gymnasium, drawing room and the eighth floor’s grand ballroom were left intact and painstakingly restored.
The team designed a new entry canopy along Madison Street based on original 1906 construction documents. Using historic photos, team members recreated a cast-iron entry canopy that had been removed on Michigan Avenue, this time fabricating it in cast-aluminum. The two exterior fac?ades of the L-shaped building had hundreds of windows, many of which were aluminum windows from a former renovation. Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture replaced windows that marred the historic architecture with period- appropriate windows. In the end, 1,100 new windows went into the project. The team rebuilt and restored 82 colored art glass windows, including the leaded glass windows in the eighth floor’s White City ballroom.
During the renovation, breathtaking views of Chicago’s Millennium Park and Lake Michigan from the rooftop inspired a new idea: to create an outdoor terrace for a rooftop bar on the 13th floor. Unfortunately, a 1920s addition to an adjacent building had overloaded the foundations of the Chicago Athletic Association and the structure could not withstand any extra weight.“The structural engineers came up with a genius plan to make the rooftop terrace a reality,” Alessandro says. “They reinforced the exterior columns all the way down and drilled piers be- neath the footings. Then, they added a giant tube truss to withstand wind loads. It was a very labor intensive but brilliant solution.”
The structural team stripped eight interior columns (four on each side) down to their bare steel and reinforced them with additional steel all the way down to the foundation. After chipping out the basement floor slab, the crew dug by hand to expose the original footings. They drilled new piles around the existing footings and expanded them, dowling the new pile-supported perimeter into the existing concrete. The reinforced columns were extended through the roof and the team interlaced 12-foot-tall visible trusses between the columns, which supported a cantilevered perimeter so that the weight of the addition was kept off the exterior walls.
Photos: Chicago Athletic Association hotel unless otherwise noted