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Blood, Sweat And Plumbing: Remaking The Old Chicago Post Office

The renovated lobby of the Old Post Office, Chicago.

It has not been an easy road to renovate Chicago’s Old Post Office. Overhauling the behemoth building has taken over four years, thousands of truckloads of debris and materials, and hundreds of hours of meetings between architects, contractors, city officials and historical preservationists. But despite the long timeline and the evolving needs of construction, some of the same faces that were brought in at the beginning of the renovation process are still seeing the project through today.

Scott Kurinsky, executive vice president of BEAR Construction, still remembers walking into the Post Office for the first time in 2016. He received a call on a Tuesday night that 601W, a New York-based developer and longtime client, was interested in buying the building. He and BEAR's Dennis Hill drove down early the next morning and were shown into the building, which had been empty since 1997.

“It was a mess,” Kurinksy said. “There was abandoned equipment and debris everywhere, and we were barely able to scratch the surface on that first visit. We knew from the start that it was going to be a tremendous amount of work.”

Originally, 601W and JLL only contracted a team of specialists from BEAR for the initial cleanup of the building. But as BEAR conquered task after task, Kurinsky said, the owners kept trusting the company with more work. Now, with his team working on the finishing touches, Kurinsky credits the completion of the massive project to the focus and determination of all the teams involved on the project.

First Steps

In the decade before 601W purchased the building, the Old Post Office was the subject of multiple high-profile development boondoggles. The former ownership put forward several plans to renovate the building, and each one was scrapped in succession. And as the building sat idle, the city shelled out an estimated $2M per year to maintain it, and at one point threatened to seize the Post Office through eminent domain.

“People saw the Post Office as Chicago’s white elephant,” Gould & Ratner partner Richard Reizen said on a Bisnow webinar about the Post Office. “It was the unsolvable problem.”

The interior of the Old Post Office during debris clearing, early 2017.

Even Reizen himself was skeptical that the job could be completed, but the team forged ahead. The first step was to clear the building of debris and make it safe for occupancy, which was no small task. At the height of construction, over 1,000 trade workers were cleaning up the site every day, Kurinsky said. Making sure every employee was safe and navigating Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and insurance issues was a constant focus. In just the first year, the BEAR team removed over 23 million pounds of debris.

Installing heat and running water into the building also proved to be a large logistical hurdle. The Old Post Office straddles the four-lane Eisenhower Expressway and sits atop 40 active rail lines from nearby Union Station. Amtrak trains run nearly 24 hours a day on those tracks, so construction crews had to negotiate the time to install plumbing lines below. BEAR crews worked almost exclusively between midnight and 4 a.m. for over a year to bring water into the building, Kurinsky said.

Dedication To Preservation

Adding to the complexities, the owners of the Old Post Office and their architectural firm, Gensler, could not just renovate it any way they wanted to. Because the building is on the list of National Historic Places, it had to be restored as closely to its original state as possible. For the BEAR team, that meant preserving many of the architectural and physical quirks, including many spiral mail chutes that run throughout the building and 9 miles of “spy tunnels,” cramped, enclosed walkways suspended from the ceiling around the former work floors, where shift bosses could peek down on their employees.

“We had to go into these incredibly tight spaces, abate any damage or hazards that were there, and bring them up to modern-day fire and building codes,” Kurinsky said.

A view from the rooftop meadow of the Old Post Office, looking north toward the Willis Tower.

In the building’s majestic marble-clad lobby, BEAR's Christine Lussow worked with historic preservationists to determine the exact mixture of grout and marble to match the colors of nearly 1,200 different floor and wall restoration patches. The gold accents seen on the ceiling are real gold leaf paint that required dozens of samples. 

Meanwhile, the teams sent away the 700-pound lobby light fixtures to an antique lighting specialist in St. Louis to have them rewired for modern LED lighting. The company that made the original revolving doors was still in existence in Evansville, Indiana, and was able to rebuild the doors according to the original specifications.

Some of the preservation efforts offered unique opportunities.

“There are two massive vaults on the first floor where they used to store currency and gold,” Kurinsky said. “Those areas inspired Gensler to design a unique tenant lounge, aptly named The Vault, which The Telos Group used to market and lease the building.”

The Finishing Touches

It’s safe to walk on the roof of the Old Chicago Post Office again.

The landscaped rooftop, complete with a large bar and seating area, running track, tennis and basketball courts, is the largest piece of the former postal hub to become accessible since tenant offices for Walgreens opened in late 2019. 

Reizen credited the success of the project to the flexibility of all the teams working on it.

“BEAR was not the original GC, but their responsibilities grew as they kept doing a great job,” Reizen said. “People were very realistic and flexible about the design and construction process. They kept a nice even keel. I’ve seen projects a tenth this size that had a whole lot more fighting and complications during the process.”

Though a few bits and pieces of construction remain — chief among them the food hall and adjacent outdoor plaza underway — construction on the building is near completion. When construction wraps, Kurinsky said, the building will be the epicenter of a new neighborhood, drawing Chicago’s focal point south and west.

“The stars really aligned to get this project done,” he said. “The right owners were there at the right time as the city wanted change, and they put together an amazing team of visionaries. Had the building not been so derelict to begin with, we might not have the innovative final product we have today.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and BEAR Construction. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.