Contact Us
Sponsored Content

These 3 Chicago Attractions Got A High-Tech Engineering Makeover

In order to facilitate work on the skylight in Chicago's Union Station without interrupting commuters below, Klein & Hoffman advocated for the use of a suspended work platform, nearly 100 feet off the ground.

Sometimes even Chicago’s most enduring attractions need a little care. In a city that prides itself on its architecture, keeping existing buildings in tiptop shape and inventing designs for the next generation of architectural icons is an especially meaningful experience for Chicago’s architects and engineers.

“I can look at the skyline and say ‘I worked on that building, and that building and that one,’” said Terry McDonald, associate principal at Klein & Hoffman, an architectural and structural engineering firm that has been at the heart of many of the largest renovation and construction projects in Chicago. “It’s very rewarding to see the impact that we have on the city around us.”

Explore below to see three Chicago icons that Klein & Hoffman worked on, two of which have been awarded Best Project from the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois.

Union Station — Great Hall Restoration

The Great Hall, with the skylight overhead

Every day, Chicago’s Union Station sees 120,000 commuters, many of whom pass through the station’s monumental Great Hall. With its travertine-clad walls and 219-foot-long vaulted skylight, the Hall is more than just a waiting room — it is a gateway for visitors who come to admire Chicago’s architectural history.

Teamed up with lead architect Goettsch Partners, Klein & Hoffman has been working on renovation efforts at Union Station since 2010. The largest undertaking kicked off in 2016 with the investigation and subsequent renovation of the terminal’s iconic Great Hall and skylight. The glass skylight, which was built in 1925, had been leaking for decades, and the water-damaged plaster was becoming a potential hazard for the commuters walking 100 feet below.

Along with Goettsch Partners, the Klein & Hoffman team determined that the most effective solution was to build a new skylight above the original to keep out the elements. However, the Great Hall's historical landmark status added one extra challenge: The new structure had to be imperceptible from below.

The project team mocked up the new skylight, ran simulations and worked with Amtrak during the bid process to choose the best contractor and strategy for the job. 

“The functions of the station couldn’t be interrupted during construction, so the winning contractor, Berglund Construction, suggested suspending a working platform from the existing skylight structure,” Klein & Hoffman Senior Associate Bobby Lau said. “We had to analyze the structural capacity of  the 1920s-era structure and make sure that was going to be feasible.”

The exterior of the skylight, with the new superstructure in full view.

Not afraid of getting his hands dirty, Lau alternately manned a 100-foot-tall boom lift and rappelled down the exterior of the skylight during the investigation. With additional lateral bracing to the original girders, Lau’s team eventually greenlighted the suspended platform, which had the added benefit of keeping the floor of the Great Hall clear of scaffolding.

“When the Cubs won the World Series, there were thousands of people waiting in the Great Hall,” McDonald said. “Scaffolding just wouldn’t have worked.”

The Yard at Chicago's Shakespeare Theater 


The interior of The Yard, showing the four-story seating towers.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater hosts over 400 performances every year across its complex on Navy Pier, one of the most highly trafficked tourist destinations in Chicago. The Yard, the theater’s newest space, needed a set of movable seating towers that could seamlessly take the theater’s capacity from 150 to 850 people. To bring the towers to life, the design team behind the project turned to Klein & Hoffman.

Working closely with tower fabricator Show Canada, the Klein & Hoffman team designed and engineered nine four-story seating towers that could be moved and rearranged into numerous configurations based on each production’s needs. 

The shape of the seating towers had to fit together modularly, and since they would only be assembled inside the theater, all the components had to be able to be loaded on a flatbed and slid on pallets through the theater’s double doors. The floor platforms were so large they had to be held diagonally by mounting on a custom-made dolly to fit through the doors.

Assembling the seating towers inside The Yard.

“Our design team played around with dozens of different configurations for the eventual framing,” Klein & Hoffman Senior Associate Bill Ipema said. “We had to get very creative with the engineering.” 

The seating towers, weighing over 14 tons each, were too heavy to be placed on wheels or suspended from the ceiling. To make the seating movable, the team eventually decided on air casters, turning each tower into a hovercraft that could float across the theater floor guided by only two theater employees. 

“It was a daunting task,” Ipema said. “These are essentially four-story buildings, complete with ductwork, sprinklers and electrical systems, that also had to be movable.”

Old Joliet Prison 

A decaying prison might not seem the likeliest candidate for a tourist attraction, but as the main filming location for the TV show Prison Break — and a famous cameo in The Blues Brothers — the Old Joliet Prison has drawn in a growing number of visitors each year since the city of Joliet leased it back from the state of Illinois. In order to better understand the condition of the abandoned structure, Joliet officials called in Klein & Hoffman to assess the prison, which dates back to 1858. 

“The city wants it to be the Alcatraz of the Midwest,” Klein & Hoffman Project Engineer Tom Gabel said. “Joliet wants to keep the prison as a ‘stabilized ruin.’ Our job wasn’t to recommend repairs for a full restoration, it was to provide a road map with recommendations to prevent further decay and collapse. The key was to understand our client’s needs and budget and create a list of priorities.”

The peeling interior of the Joliet Prison during Klein & Hoffman's initial walkthrough.

Gabel and his team spent six days touring the grounds and buildings in the prison complex, using 360-degree cameras, GoPro cameras and drones to determine which areas were stable and which would need immediate reinforcing. McDonald, who is also a licensed drone pilot, said one of the biggest challenges came as the team examined a 160-foot smokestack above the prison’s old powerhouse. 

“It really was an exhilarating project to be on,” Gabel said. “It’s amazing that this 160-year-old structure is still in this kind of condition. We inspect a lot of buildings, but this really is a once-in-a-lifetime project.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Klein & Hoffman. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.