Oct. 11–As the just-concluded design war over Union Station suggests, putting a modern addition on top of a historic building is fraught with peril.
Last month, developers withdrew their widely derided plan to plop a metal-and-glass box atop the classically inspired railroad station. The move came a dozen years after Soldier Field's Klingon-meets-Parthenon mashup got the lakefront stadium stripped of national landmark status.
Against that backdrop, the rebirth of a once-crumbling Chicago office building as a stylish boutique hotel stands out — not because its glassy, five-story addition blends in with its beautifully renovated terra-cotta facade, but because it largely succeeds at combining, and contrasting, past and present.
Designed by Chicago architect Benjamin Marshall and built in 1912, the former 12-story building at 168 N. Michigan Ave. is now the 17-story Hotel Julian. Its new use seems meant to be, given that the charismatic Marshall, who had head-turning good looks and partied with the A-list at his Wilmette home, designed the Drake, Blackstone and Edgewater Beach hotels.
Indeed, one suspects that Marshall, who is said to have hosted Gatsby-like parties with showgirls whose bathing suits dissolved when wet, might have approved of the large, edgy message displayed on one of the lobby's walls: "# Meet With Me # Eat With Me # Sleep With Me @ The Julian."
The building's transformation is part of a larger renaissance, spurred by Millennium Park, of the previously derelict blocks south of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Now those blocks hum with tourists and the smell of money is in the air. That includes the $75 million-plus that went into the 218-room Hotel Julian, which is named for the patron saint of travelers.
The developers, Chicago-based Oxford Capital Group and London-based Quandrum Global, deserve credit for shelling out the extra dollars it took to renovate the creamy terra-cotta facade, about a third of which had to be replaced.
For pedestrians tired of bland glass walls, the masonry — with its delicate rosettes and colonnettes, its muscular chamfered piers and its serrated cornice — should be a delight. There's no patchwork; the original and new pieces of terra cotta blend seamlessly.
The architects for the project, Hirsch/MPG of Chicago, searched Marshall's archives at the University of Texas to get the details right. They also had to shore up the foundations of the building, even though Marshall planned an addition.
But the biggest challenge for Hirsch, whose team included principals Howard Hirsch and David Genc and associate Matthew Starman, was creative: How to add on?
Instead of the obvious — pile terra cotta atop terra cotta — the architects came up with a solution inspired by the chamfered piers.
They placed a faceted glass wall, which resembles the pleats of a dress, atop the original building. Then they extended the glass downward and into the facade's window openings. The idea was to weave a thread of continuity between top and bottom, old and new.
Unfortunately, the treatment is so subtle that it will be imperceptible to most passers-by. They're liable to think that architects put a glass top on an old building and called it a day.
But look closely and you'll see how the new glass quietly echoes the old terra-cotta skin through its vertical proportions, sculptural presence and jewellike play of light.
Here, the present brings new vitality to the past without overwhelming it.
The hotel's west-facing wall also has been remade, though with flat, not faceted, glass. On this side, an addition of dark brick tops the original building's renovated glazed brick and terra cotta. It's less elegant than the Michigan Avenue front, but still striking.
A hotel is much more than the sum of its facades, of course, and the good news about this one is that form and function work in sync.
By simplifying the base of Marshall's original Michigan Avenue facade, the architects give the hotel a monumental street-level presence that's in keeping with the grand scale of the famous wall of historic, masonry-clad buildings that line Michigan Avenue across from Grant Park.
They further integrated the building into the city with folding glass doors that open the building's slyly named steakhouse, About Last Knife, to the sidewalk.
An original brick wall that lines the restaurant is adorned by a mural of Marshall and his Spanish Revival mansion in Wilmette. (Oxford CEO John Rutledge grew up in that North Shore suburb.)
It's not easy to endow a building less than 50 feet wide with a sense of spaciousness, but the architects have done so in concert with Workshop, the New York-based firm that designed the ground floor, and the Gettys Group, which handled the compact, clean-lined guest rooms.
Tall ceilings help. So do the ground floor's light wood walls and ceilings. And the faceted facade, which provides small bay windows that overlook Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park, makes the east-facing guest rooms seem bigger than they are.
It's not all ideal. The south-facing rooms look directly into the offices of the adjoining slant-roofed office building, 150 N. Michigan Ave.
But fear not, there are shades for privacy — and they won't dissolve like those Marshall swimsuits.
Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.