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To Bring the Old Colony Building Back to Life, It's The Little Things That Matter

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photos by Harry Carmichael

There's a stretch of Dearborn and Plymouth in the south end of Chicago's Loop where, amidst the modern towers of glass and steel, a few old buildings reach out to us across time. These historic buildings date back to before the word skyscraper was a commonly used term for these tall structures — an era when engineers tilted their heads back and looked at the roof lines of the day and collectively said, "We can do better," and created new ways to stretch a building skyward. The towers they designed and built laid the foundation for the modern skyscraper we are quite familiar with today, and the techniques they pioneered triggered a building boom that cemented Chicago's architectural legacy. Some of the buildings from that time that still stand today do so in thanks to preservationist movements and historic landmark commissions, others simply because nobody had come along with the terrible idea of simply knocking them down. The Holabird & Roche designed Old Colony Building on Dearborn and Van Buren is in the former camp, a 120 year old former office tower that was first landmarked in the 1970s but languished in high vacancy for the last few decades. However, the very early 17 story skyscraper is now receiving new life as high-end student housing.

One problem with landmark status for some of these old buildings is that while they do protect the buildings from being demolished, they do nothing to keep them profitable. As the real estate market moves over the years, tastes change and people move out and into newer and perhaps bigger spaces. Building owners lose money and can't afford the upkeep, so the buildings sit empty and in disrepair while the rest of the city scurries into the future around it. So it went for the Old Colony Building for much of its more recent life. It was once the tallest building in a city full of the tallest buildings, but today it's unlikely to be recognized by name or even by location.

Today, though, things are looking brighter for the old relic. A partnership between student housing developer CA Ventures and local developer Keith Gile is injecting new life into the Old Colony Building by completely rehabilitating the structure, bringing it back to historic condition, while also modernizing the use from office space to high-end student apartments with designs by local architecture firm Pappageorge Haymes.

Giles was a big player in the warehouse-to-lofts conversion boom that hit the South Loop in the last development boom in the late '90s and early '00s. He'd buy up a disused old building, convert it into spacious homes, and use the money to buy another building, on and on, until the South Loop became one of the hottest real estate scenes in the city. With Old Colony, he saw a chance to do something a little different. Instead of wide open floor plates and benign exteriors of warehouses, Old Colony was built to be offices and fills up one of the narrowest blocks in downtown. Adapting the space to residential, while staying within the constraints imposed by both the national and city landmark boards, wouldn't be as easy as previous projects, but has been worth the effort.

Giles says that roughly 20% of the cost of the new development will be going toward restoring the building back to its former glory. The building is full of amazing details that would be easy to overlook, like intricate metalwork around the lower windows, polished brass stairway newel caps that look like old door knobs, actual door knobs each embellished with "OCB", each of which Giles is happy to be able to bring back.

The exterior has changed over the years from its original ivory white to a dour gray, residue from generations of industrial and rail soot, and then back to white thanks to a cleaning performed by the previous owner that, to the dismay of the new owners, left a damaging layer of acid on all of the glass, which is costing more money to clean up. The abuse by previous owners doesn't end there, however. Decorative Greco-Roman columns that flanked the main entrance had their fronts completely shaved off at some point, apparently to run some ductwork. Giles laughs and shakes his head when we bring up the chopped columns, "Who would do that?!"

For a very old building built for office tenants, Old Colony has a lot of assets that should appeal to the modern residential market. The ceilings are surprisingly tall, and the windows are massive. The turret-style rounded corners of the buildings will make for impressive panoramic views of the city that stretch all the way to Lake Michigan. The plumbing, wiring, and ducting has all been carefully excised and replaced with modern equipment, so no need to worry about a drafty old building or a prehistoric boiler.

There's an old trope of story you hear a lot about new homeowners tearing up some ugly carpet or laminate flooring to discover beautiful hardwood floors beneath. A similar thing happened in this building, except instead of carpet or laminate flooring it was dirt and grime. Once the construction is complete and the floors are cleaned, hundred-year-old wood flooring will once again shine through.

The development itself is being called ARC at Old Colony, a name that pays subtle tribute to the system of structural arches, four per floor, that give the building its strength against wind. It was a new engineering technique invented to build this building in an age when most people were certain a building could never be more than 15 stories. The structural arch system worked, of course, as the building has stood strong for over a century now, and now with new purpose and new stewards, could stand another century still.

·Old Colony Building Ready for New Life as Student Housing [Curbed Chicago]
·Old Colony Building Targeted for Gut Rehab, Rental Conversion [Curbed Chicago]
·11 Historic Buildings Getting New Life as Hotels & Apartments [Curbed Chicago]