Old Chicago Post Office Tom Rossiter Design by Gensler 2
Old Post Office © Tom Rossiter | Design by Gensler
Back to news APRIL 16, 2021

MHA’s marketing manager, Kayleigh Defenbaugh, recently sat down with MHA Chicago senior affiliate, Emily Ramsey, and MHA Houston associate, Amanda Barry, to talk about their recent post office projects – the Old Post Office in Chicago and POST Houston.

The Old Post Office in Chicago.
Photo: © Eric Laignel | Design by Gensler.

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A drone photo of the POST Houston warehouse rooftop, named “Skylawn.”
Photo: Kat Ambrose courtesy Lovett Commercial.

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The rooftop at the Old Post Office in Chicago with a basketball court, running track, and paddleball courts.
Photo: © Tom Rossiter | Design by Gensler.

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Walgreens’ office space in the Old Post Office in Chicago.
Photo by MHA.

OPO Walgreens opening and stair btwn E and S bldgs

A view of one of the new atriums and the Houston skyline from the POST Houston rooftop.
Photo: Kat Ambrose courtesy Lovett Commercial.

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A retained supervisor tunnel in Ferrera Candy Company’s office space in the Old Post Office in Chicago.

Photo by MHA.

OPO Ferrara Candy Co postal inspector walkway retained

A historic mail chute in Ferrera Candy Company’s office space in the Old Post Office in Chicago.

Photo by MHA.

OPO Ferrara Candy Co retained mail chute

Elevators in the art deco lobby of the Old Post Office in Chicago.

Photo © Eric Laignel | Design by Gensler.

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The POST Houston rooftop with skylights, landscape zones, and an atrium penthouse. Photo: Kat Ambrose courtesy Lovett Commercial.

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Kayleigh Both of your projects, Chicago’s Old Post Office and Houston’s Barbara Jordan Post Office, are two of the largest adaptive reuse projects in the country. Termed “groundscrapers,” both properties are less than 10 stories high. The Chicago post office included the redevelopment of 2.5 million square feet and the Houston post office included the redevelopment of 500,000 square feet. What unique challenges did you encounter with the redevelopment and preservation of such large-scale, horizontally oriented properties?

Emily For the Chicago post office, the building had been vacant for many years. It is huge – the floorplates are enormous, so from the beginning, finding a developer with a viable plan for redevelopment was the first challenge. MHA was involved in several other development plans in the years prior to when The 601W Companies bought the building and it just never happened. It may sound silly, but the sheer size of the building is a challenge – everything is huge – every line item on a budget is huge. With a project of this scope and this size, you have to take it in chunks. The first phase of the project was responding to all of the code violations from the city. There had been several fires in the building, and it was really unsafe. There had been lots of water infiltration – so there was a focus on getting the building watertight. We focused on the restoring the main lobby and the exterior first, and the next phase focused on completing tenant amenities that would bring tenants to the building. So, breaking it up into manageable chunks is what allowed this team to ultimately be successful.

Amanda The Houston post office is smaller than what they were dealing with in Chicago, but still in terms of Houston, it’s a very large building. The first challenge was the programming – the floorplates are massive. We had a couple of benefits though. We had two distinct spaces – the administrative tower and the warehouse and we could think of them as separately finished spaces with different programming. Lovett Commercial, the developer, had a great vision of dividing the warehouse space by function. We have a cultural/arts space, where the plan is to have rotating art installations and events; we have a food hall space; and we have a coworking space on the first floor. The second floor will be offices. In the eastern section of the warehouse, we have black box programming which is going to be a concert venue for Live Nation. This was great, because one of the challenges of the warehouse building is that it had no windows. For the other half of the warehouse, we went through several iterations of a fenestration pattern. We had many meetings on how to introduce windows into a façade that never had windows and not make it look like it always had windows. That was very challenging. Additionally, rooftop planning has been challenging. Our building is technically in downtown Houston, but it’s across the Bayou, so it doesn’t really have the benefit of other buildings shielding the building when it comes to sightlines. We have done lots of 3D renderings and physical mock-ups. For the landscaping plan, we established zones to make sure we were being respectful of the view of the building from the street and its primary viewsheds. Talking about being a "groundscaper," the building is a concrete island that backs up to an elevated freeway so there is really no hiding it.

Kayleigh Did having such a large project create challenges relative to tenant work meeting The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards?

Emily For the Chicago post office, the entire building is leased office space and tenant amenities. From the beginning, the goal was to identify tenants that wanted really large chunks of space. From the standpoint of meeting The Standards and the reviews for tax credits, the large scale and the multiple tenants was challenging. Like your post office Amanda, and like most post offices, this building has a 12-story office tower and a 9-story mail processing center. The idea was that tenants would take an entire floor or multiple floors – we needed connections between the buildings because tenants want a modern open office concept. Connecting the offices in the tower with the offices in the mail processing spaces and creating openings in some of the corridors were the first big challenges that we faced. The Park Service ultimately allowed us to make really large openings between the walls of the two separate spaces and allowed some flexibility with openings along the corridors. Then it was important to keep the separate identity of those two spaces – the industrial identity of the mail processing spaces and the finished office identity of the office tower – through fixtures and finishes. The other challenge was that the floors between the two spaces didn’t line up. We had to come up with creative ways to tie all the spaces together for the tenants who were taking entire floors or multiple floors. We had to make the open office plan work within these two historically distinct spaces.

Amanda I don’t know what we would have done with that. Our building only connects on two levels, so we didn’t have the same challenges of, “how do we create flow between the two spaces, but maintain their separate identities?” We developed two separate sets of tenant guidelines – one for the admin tower and one for the warehouse. Another challenge involved dividing the massive floorplates into leasable, manageable chunks. Our team implemented a lot of substantial glass partitions to maintain sightlines. Our architects, OMA, introduced three significant atriums into the building. With those, if you stand in the middle of one of the atriums and look left or right, you can see all the way to one side and all the way to the other basically.

Emily Was that something that the Park Service required? That you retain those volumes?

Amanda Yes, but it was something that we were thinking about from the get-go. OMA and Lovett were always very conscious and willing to embrace the gargantuan scale of the warehouse space. It was important to them to maintain those sightlines. And that’s something that I think helped us in some of our earlier negotiations with the Park Service. The Park Service did, however, influence how we approached the support spaces that lined the interiors of the warehouse. The perimeter of our warehouse was lined with secondary spaces – bathrooms, locker rooms, and supervisor spaces. It was a challenge to figure out how to incorporate those secondary, support spaces with tenant spaces.

Emily Tenant fit-out guidelines were also critical for the Chicago post office and it was the same thing – we had separate guidelines for the north building, which is the office tower, and the south and the east buildings, which were the mail processing spaces. They were the most detailed tenant fit-out guidelines I’ve ever developed because, again, we had these huge openings between the spaces. It came down to things like, “you can’t have brass fixtures in the mail processing space because that’s not an industrial finish,” and vice-versa. The SHPO and the Park Service were adamant that if we were going to have these big openings, we were going to have to keep that delineation between the spaces. That can be a hard sell with tenants who are taking whole floors and who wanted consistency within the two spaces.

Kayleigh Both of your projects included the retention of historic fabric and unique, original post office features. Mail chutes, conveyors, and supervisor tunnels were saved. Which were your favorite to learn about and preserve?

Amanda The supervisor tunnels are my favorite part of the Houston post office. Both the Houston and Chicago post offices have supervisor tunnels, but that’s not a coincidence – every single [historic] post office has those – it’s one of the hallmarks of post offices. We found a way to keep the Houston post office supervisor tunnels everywhere we could, and we only cut them when we needed to. Now, they are this really cool design feature and that lighting designers are having a fun time with. It’s hands down my favorite thing and now I have this random piece of trivia for dinner parties.

Emily Our situation was kind of the same – there were tons of supervisor tunnels and we had to negotiate which sections would stay. There was a lot of historic equipment – big scales, vaults, mezzanines, and six huge spiral mail chutes that went all the way from the top of the building to the bottom. They are so big. People who used to work at the post office said that when they brought their kids to work, they would slide down the chutes.

Amanda That's so cute!

Emily It looks like a big slide! Those are the historic elements that everyone loves – the chutes are industrial with painted sheet metal. Visually, they’re just really interesting. The inspector walkways though were always the hardest sell. I think they are the coolest thing, but from a constructability and tenant standpoint it’s like, “why are we keeping these?” But with good architects, you find a way to make it work and made it interesting. In phase one, the architects for the project, Gensler, went through the building and identified the historic equipment and then we negotiated back and forth with the Park Service on what to preserve. With most historic buildings, what people can’t necessarily appreciate in the beginning ends up being what everyone loves most about the building at the end of the rehabilitation. I think that’s probably the case here too.

Kayleigh How has the pandemic affected your project?

Amanda For the Houston post office, the tower lends itself to a hotel layout. The pandemic certainly put any conversation about a hotel use for the tower on pause. We are white-boxing that space – it will have a finished ceiling and floor, a central corridor, and the “action” will be in the warehouse space.

Emily Our project started in 2016. I don’t think that anyone on the team anticipated that leasing would go as fast as it did. However, once the leasing team, Telos, got the first big tenant signed, then it was just crazy – companies wanted to get in the building. It was fortunate, the building officially opened in October of 2019, before COVID hit. The beautiful, art deco lobby was open and available for events. The effect that COVID has had on the building now is that there are lots of tenants leased and many spaces are finished, but nobody is there. In an interesting way, it’s been good and bad. For the tenants that were just starting construction, buildouts have been moving along really smoothly because they haven’t had to work around thousands and thousands of office workers to prevent disruption. So now the building is almost fully leased, and they are just waiting for people to start coming back into the offices. The food hall, which was a component of the project from the beginning, has been delayed a bit by COVID but it’s coming.

Kayleigh Both of your projects involve a large-scale rooftop designed by landscape architects Hoerr Schaudt – specifically a 3.5-acre private rooftop in Chicago and a 5-6-acre public rooftop in Houston. How did you align the architects’ desires for programming and landscaping elements with The Secretary of Interior Standards?

Emily I think rooftops are always …

Amanda complicated.

Emily Yes, complicated. Everyone always wants to have something on the rooftop in a downtown area. If you’re in an urban area, that is prime space. One benefit – the parapets on our building are so ridiculously tall – it was a blessing. They were able to put things on there – structures, a basketball court, a big pavilion – and it wouldn’t be visible. The Chicago post office is on the southern edge of downtown and it’s on the river. The building is highly exposed. It has the freeway that goes straight through the building. It’s not that tall in relation to the skyscrapers north of it, but there are views from everywhere, especially when you’re on the freeway approaching it, driving right underneath it. For the rooftop, it was just about confirming with the Park Service and the Landmarks (because it’s a local landmark), that none of this is going to be visible. There were multiple view studies. If you’re on the street, you have no idea it’s there. It’s beautiful – they did a fantastic job.

Amanda I think for Lovett, the Houston post office’s relationship to downtown, it was just too good to pass up. Because it is only a two-story building that backs up to a freeway, it is difficult to hide the various programming elements. In consultation with SHPO and the Park Service, we had to choose our primary viewshed as we could not completely conceal all of the elements of the rooftop programming. Everything is pushed towards the back – the penthouses for the atria are sloped away from the primary façade. The landscape plan has zones with various heights for landscaping elements. On top of that, it’s challenging because our parapets are only 18 inches tall. On the eastern side of the warehouse, it will be easier though, because that is going to be an urban farm, so everything will be low. Overall, it’s one of the most ambitious rooftop plans that I think will ever go through the historic tax credit program but it looks great. All of the different interventions, whether it be inside or outside of the building, help to bring the building down to scale – you still feel that you are in a big, open space, but it just doesn’t feel as vast and isolating.

Emily Rooftop spaces are becoming more popular. It’s a great thing for the tenants, for the public, for beautification efforts. The Standards are broadly written and interpreted, but they also have a very specific purpose. Adaptive reuse requires owners to have a lot of creativity and vision. With historic tax credits, we sometimes have to trim that vision to get it to fit within the parameters, while still allowing it to be an interesting and successful rehabilitation that brings people in. For the Chicago post office, the SHPO reviewer we worked with, Anna Margaret Barris, was really helpful throughout the process in trying to find paths forward. The building is not a museum and it’s not a post office anymore. In order for the building to have a successful second life as an office building, it has to meet the needs of the tenants. There is always a balance.

Amanda The Standards force creative thinking and problem solving. At the end, you have a great building with all of these great quirks that often turn out to be people’s favorite aspects of the building.

Contact MHA to learn more about how historic tax credits may work for your development project.