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A High-Flying Vintage Rehab by Blair Kamin

Wrigley Building’s New Owners Have High-Flying Plans for a Vintage Restoration

By Blair Kamin | March 25, 2012 | The Chicago Tribune

 

 

 

Like me, you may have wondered: What’s in those mysterious aeries atop the Wrigley Building?

Last week, I found out.

Inside the tiny, round room near the top of the southern tower of the festive white skyscraper, you spy something you can’t see from street level — winged lions carved into the columns that surround the room. Reached by a spiral staircase, the room was once the top tier of an observatory, I learned. Visitors got drop-dead views of the skyline and the Chicago River, plus, legend has it, a pack of chewing gum.

In the other Wrigley Building aerie — this one atop the northern tower at 400 and 410 N. Michigan Ave. — faint blue and white clouds adorn the walls of the “Cloud Room.” This soaring, light-washed space served as a fabulous break room for employees of the building’s former owner, the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.

With a long-overdue ordinance to make the Wrigley Building an official Chicago landmark expected to be introduced to the City Council next month, I figured the time was finally right to get a full-fledged tour of the famous skyscraper across Michigan Avenue from the Tribune Tower.

The new owners were only too happy to oblige, and it was easy to understand why. About 65 percent of the building’s 460,000 square feet will be empty once Wrigley moves out by the end of this year. That’s a lot of space to sell, and the economic stakes are high.

The new owners — a consortium of investors led by BDT Capital Partners, along with Groupon co-founders Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky, and the Zeller Realty Group — spent a modest $33 million to buy the aging building, according to Ari Glass, a Zeller senior vice president. They will spend more than double the purchase price — about $70 million — to renovate it, he said.

The money will pay for such mundane, low-profile upgrades as new toilets and a sprinkler system (like many older buildings, the Wrigley Building doesn’t have sprinklers). Yet the renovation also will produce such highly visible changes as the removal of a refrigerator-like metal and glass wall that disfigured one of the building’s ground-level facades.

“The good news is we’re doing very little to the outside except improving it,” said Michael Kaufman, a partner at Chicago-based Goettsch Partners, the architectural firm working on the project.

Designed by architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the Wrigley Building was completed in two parts that have been compared to fraternal twins — the taller south tower, with its clock tower, in 1921; the shorter but larger north tower, which holds two-thirds of the building’s office space, in 1924.

An outdoor plaza was built atop a viaduct between the two towers in 1957. It provided a pedestrian link between Michigan and Wabash avenues and covered a railroad spur on North Water Street.

For decades, the Wrigley Building was an unofficial landmark, celebrated in postcards and in songs like “My Kind of Town,” but it lacked official city landmark protection because city officials trusted the Wrigley company to treat it with the proper care. The prospect of the upcoming renovation changed that, though it did not quell debates about the building’s architectural quality.

Shortly after the Commission on Chicago Landmarks recommended landmark status for the building in February, some commentators took aim at the building, calling it a “beloved rip-off.” But the far more common view is that the Wrigley is a graceful synthesis of diverse stylistic sources (Spanish, Renaissance, French and Chicago School), not an awkward hodgepodge.

It is that rare building appreciated by both the masses and the cognoscenti. And the new owners intend to treat it the right way: respecting its architectural integrity while bringing it into the 21st century.

Their most dramatic and welcome change will strip off the incongruous metal-and-glass facade that the Wrigley Co. slapped onto the plaza-facing wall of the north tower in 2010. Terra cotta, matching the rest of the building, will replace it.

The plaza itself, now a dreary stretch of crumbling concrete, also could get an upgrade, with new materials and seasonal seating if restaurants occupy the space around the plaza. That would make it a fitting extension of the elegant plaza at the adjoining Trump International Hotel & Tower. But the outcome will depend on negotiations between the new owners and the city, which owns the plaza and which agreed in 1956 to pay for maintaining the public space.

“Both parties are interested in working out an agreement that would facilitate a renovation of the existing plaza,” Pete Scales, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Transportation, wrote in an email.

Another high-profile change will remove most of the screen-like wall of glass and metal between North Michigan Avenue and the building’s plaza, leaving three open arches in the building’s center. The current screen is not original, Kaufman said. The original screen was installed to prevent people from falling onto the railroad spur, he explained, and to prevent coal-fired train engines from spewing smoke onto elegant Boul Mich.

That change could be a mixed blessing. The screen provides a sense of human scale and skillfully ties together the lower reaches of the two towers. But getting rid of it will improve pedestrian flow and allow people to see more of the beautiful terra-cotta arches. Not coincidentally, the change will improve access to the shops the new owners would like to see around the plaza.

“We want to see the plaza, in general, be more invigorated,” Glass said.

Inside, the changes will be more substantial, with an eye toward luring tenants to a location that is far from downtown’s train stations. Only the building’s exterior would be protected by the proposed landmark ordinance, according to Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development.

In the two lobbies, the new owners envision keeping original details, like a bronze post office box, but plan a new look that would blend modern and traditional styles. Ornate bronze chandeliers will be restored or re-created.

In the offices, where ceiling heights can be raised above the building’s current standard of just over 8 feet, the owners stress strengths that arise from a site across the Chicago River from the central business district but removed from its cheek-by-jowl office blocks: abundant natural light, views of the river and (from higher floors) Lake Michigan, even views looking across the plaza to the wealth of terra-cotta ornament in the opposite Wrigley tower.

Some marble walls in the hallways and mahogany door surrounds will stay. Others, in corridors that have been altered over the years, are likely to disappear.

“We’re anticipating a complete gut and rebuilding of the office space,” Glass said.

Prospective tenants include financial services firms, boutique law firms, ad agencies and public relations firms. Some existing tenants can expect rental rates to rise once the renovation is done and their leases expire, the owners say.

“The building needs rejuvenation. It needs to be brought to commercial office standards that can compete in today’s market,” said Janice Goldsmith, a Zeller senior vice president.

The owners are requesting a Class L property tax classification, which would save them $12.1 million over 12 years, city officials have said. To gain that benefit, the owners must invest 50 percent of the building’s full market value in renovations approved by the city.

That’s a trade-off well worth making. The City Council should approve landmark status for the Wrigley and the Class L change its owners seek. The saving of great buildings works best when it’s undergirded by a strong financial foundation. This is the sort of enlightened marriage of preservation and economics that will ensure the long-term survival of a treasured Chicago icon.

bkamin@tribune.com