Friday, August 26, 2011

The Reliance Building (Part Two)

The Reliance -- Root at the base, Atwood on the tower,
a Burnham triumph (JWB, 2008)

In the last blog I ran through the reasons why The Reliance building, now the Burnham Hotel, was one of the great triumphs of the first generation of skyscrapers in Chicago.  Today I want to mention the story of its rescue and ensuing transformation into a contemporary triumph of adaptive reuse.

On the corner of Washington and State Street, across the street from the gaping wound that was Block 37, the Reliance Building waited for its rebirth.  The city bought the property in 1992 for 1.2 million dollars and appropriated another 6.4 million dollars toward the restoration of the property’s exterior, in the hope that this would make the building more attractive to a developer.  Somewhere in there probably was the goal of avoiding a large chunk of century-old terra cotta falling on a passerby’s head.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation provides the full scope of the two phases of the restoration effort.

14,300 piece of terra cotta make up the facade of The Reliance
(JWB, 2008)
That first phase involved replacing more than 2,000 pieces of terra cotta with exact matches.  Another thousand pieces were removed from the building, cleaned and reinstalled.  That sounds complicated enough, but there are 140 different decorative motifs out of the 14,300 pieces of terra cotta that make up the building’s skin.  New molds had to be made for 130 of them.

Because the original windows and their frames were shot, everything had to be replaced.  Care was taken to make sure that the new glass came as close as possible to the appearance of the original polished plate glass.  The new aluminum window frames were planned so as to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Also in this phase the original cornice that had been removed in the 1940’s was recreated in aluminum.  The use of historic drawings and photographs for the design ensured that the new cornice is true to the original.  The bottoms of the second floor bays had also been removed in the early 1940’s.  These were also reconstructed.

The restoration of the exterior was orchestrated by Baldwin Development Co. and the McClier Corporation, an architectural firm that was also responsible for the restoration of the Rookery Building at 209 South LaSalle Street.  T. Gunny Harboe led McClier’s restoration plans.  Atunovich Associates was the architectural firm of record.

The second phase of the building’s restoration was just as ambitious and required far more architectural detective work.  There were a few fragments of the original storefront’s granite and bronze trim, and these were used to create the base of the building as it originally looked when John Root’s plan was brought to life.

The elevator lobby required the identification and matching of the six different kinds of marble that were used for the ceiling and walls.  Once again historic photographs, drawings, and a small piece of the original mosaic floor led to an exact reconstruction of the original lobby.

Faithful recreation of the mosaics and hallways -- one
of the impressive aspects of the project
(Photo Courtesy of Hotel Burnham)
The corridors of the upper floors were restored to their original appearance.  The marble, mahogany, and glass office and corridor walls were restored, along with the ornamental staircase and the terrazzo floors.  The original metal elevator grilles had been buried in the wall of the elevator shaft.  These were reinstalled in front of a new shaft wall.

The 122 hotel rooms in the new boutique hotel were a real challenge.  No two corridors were exactly the same, so the challenge was to keep the original door locations in the position they occupied in the original plan.  Finally, where Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. occupied the ground floor back in the 1890’s, a new restaurant was created, the Atwood CafĂ©, the namesake of the man who planned the bulk of the project.

In 1999 the restored Reliance Building was reborn as the Hotel Burnham, the third Chicago hotel managed by the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, Inc., a San Francisco company specializing in boutique hotels.  Kimpton also manages the Allegro Hotel on Randolph Street, the Hotel Monaco on Wacker Drive, and the Hotel Palomar on North State Street.
The Reliance as it appeared originally

Walt Whitman once said that to have great poets you need a great audience.  The same, I think, is true of buildings.  To have them, more importantly, to keep them, requires a people willing to understand their worth, despite all of the practical concerns that unite to see those buildings torn down.  The Reliance was lucky . . . it was brought to life in a great town, filled with many people who rejoiced at its rebirth, a great Windy City audience deserving of this magnificent terra cotta poem.


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