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How A Historic West Loop Office Tower Became A Luxury Hotel

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A rendering of the new rooftop of 226 West Jackson Blvd., Chicago

Chicago's city center has been drifting steadily southwest, with new projects and renovations of classic buildings like the Old Post Office inspiring new development in a part of the Loop that has long been overlooked.

Local investors Phoenix Development Partners were looking to capitalize on that momentum when they purchased 226 West Jackson Blvd., a turn-of-the-century high-rise across the street from the Willis Tower, with the intention of turning the 115-year-old office into a dual-branded Hilton hotel. For the construction, Phoenix turned to Leopardo, a Chicago-based construction company with a long history of adaptive reuse projects.

"We're breathing new life into a great old building that had run its course as an office space," said Steven Smith, a senior vice president at Leopardo who oversees the firm's hospitality and retail practices. "Horizons change in the city and new areas become popular. We get to keep the building's best attributes and build it back up for a new era."

When 226 West Jackson was built in 1904, it served as the headquarters of the Chicago and North Western Railroad. More recently, it was home to the administrative offices of the City Colleges of Chicago. Renovating the building for hotel guests was going to be no small feat, and before Phoenix decided to buy, Leopardo was asked to assess whether the task was even feasible.

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Steel crews working at 226 West Jackson

"You have to make sure you know as much about the building as possible," Leopardo Project Executive Erik Magsamen said. "We spent about 18 months in active pre-construction, wrapping our heads around the environmental and historical preservation requirements and examining every piece of the building we could."

Adaptive reuse is not always as glamorous as new construction, Smith said, but it will always be important to the city of Chicago.

"Chicago is built already," he said. "The great locations already have buildings on them. So if we want to keep the city evolving and make sure all the buildings and spaces are used to their highest purpose, we have to recycle them. We're revitalizing something that's become obsolete."

The good news was that the Leopardo team found that even a century after its construction, 226 West Jackson was still in great shape. The exterior facade of the building was solid and the structural integrity allowed for the planned modifications, and the existing floor plates aligned well for hotel use.

One of the features that had attracted Phoenix to the building in the first place was an internal light well, which ran from the ground floor up to the roof. This feature allowed access to natural light that was necessary for stacking hotel rooms from both sides of the internal corridor.

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A floor of 226 West Jackson awaiting construction of a new floor plan

Because Hilton did not have many flags in the southwest Loop, Phoenix planned a dual-branded hotel. Floors three through seven will hold a Hilton Garden Inn, while the top eight floors are set aside for one of the brand's new concepts, Hilton Canopy. Since each of the two Hilton brands specify its own range of room sizes and styles, Smith said, Leopardo created unique 3D model layouts for each floor in the building, relying on the firm's virtual design and modeling team to make sure that mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems coordinated from floor to floor.

Magsamen said that building new floor plans is one area where the team at Leopardo shines, since the firm also has its own drywall and painting practices. At another hospitality project, they completed the design and construction of a 300-room hotel renovation in only 18 weeks.

Once Leopardo had the layout, it was time to move inside the building. 

"You can make anything work on a computer screen, but it's an entirely different challenge to be able to execute on those plans once you're on-site," Smith said.

Some of the building's floors originally housed vaults with three- and four-foot thick walls. The walls had already been co-opted into the design of the City College offices, but the project team re-exposed them in order to bring light into some of the harder-to-reach spaces in the new hotel.

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A Leopardo employee measures to install wood blocking at 226 West Jackson

Most importantly, Magsamen said, the team had to figure out whether the building's original clay-tile arch floors were going to be strong enough to support all the lighting, electrical, fire protection and mechanical systems that would be supported from the floor above. They tested various anchoring systems, working with the structural engineer to find a cost-effective solution that would keep everything secure.

Leopardo was also able to prefabricate metal studs and drywall for the entire building, reducing the overall labor and timeline of the renovation.

"There are always going to be unexpected hurdles when you're dealing with adaptive reuse," Magsamen said. "Our job is to reduce as many as we can and find the best physical and financial solutions for them." 

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