“Just Say Yes”: How Improvisation and Craft Shaped the Restoration of the Chicago Athletic Association Building

By Special Contributor posted 03-31-2017 09:57


By Paul Alessandro

Improvisation is the art of crafting a story based on bits of information contributed by the audience as well as fellow performers. Each night in improv theaters all over Chicago, actors use a simple rule to forward their improvisations and support one another’s creativity. Called “yes, and...,” the methodology requires performers to listen carefully to the ideas that their acting partners are advancing, agree with what has been presented, and add on to it.

As an architect specializing in preservation, I have found these concepts to be useful in approaching any new historic project. When presented with a preservation opportunity, our design team undertakes extensive research to understand what the building is offering, as well as the original designer’s ideas, as a starting point. Then, accepting that starting point, we work to elevate its narrative in every decision we make. We also dig deep to craft the story we want to tell. How did people use this building in the past? How will they use it in the future? How can these old stories and planned uses meld to create a new narrative?

Historic Reading Room in the Chicago Athletic Association Building circa 1901. | Credit: CAA Archives

When our project team first visited the vacant Chicago Athletic Association Building (CAA) in 2012, we were stunned by the details of the extant interior as well as the many changes made over time. Weighing the richness of the existing historic material against the desire to completely change the function of the property, the “yes, and…” technique became our organizing idea as we developed and refined our design approach.

The original building by Henry Ives Cobb, dating from 1893, now featured significant additions that the firm of Schmidt, Garden and Martin made in 1906 and 1926. The CAA’s surviving interior presented a veritable treasure trove of historic finishes and craft. These grand spaces, which had only ever been seen by the privileged members of the athletic club, were originally built by skilled artisans over the course of tens of thousands hours. The results of their efforts remained in remarkable shape despite more than 100 years of continual use. That said, much of the original Cobb design had been “augmented” with questionable additions and treatments, added haphazardly over those years of what I call the “no, but…” approach, obscuring the work of the original craftspeople. 


Restored Reading Room. | Credit: Brad Pogatetz

As we dug into the CAA’s history, it became clear that Cobb had intended it to be a modern building. Completed during the last months of the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, the CAA was designed to provide every possible convenience to serve the powerful men who had built the city. The social organization housed there promoted health and fitness and sponsored competitors in sporting activities nationwide. The facility was a showplace of “fireproof” construction with a modern heating system and electric lighting powered by its own internal direct current generating plant. The building was suffused with light and air via internal courtyards and ventilation shafts, and its location on Michigan Avenue, with open access to Lake Michigan, allowed a respite from the grime of the city.

Given that history, we believed that our approach needed to be equally modern. We had to celebrate the beautiful historic materials and craft but without making them feel so precious that they couldn’t be used and enjoyed by the public. It was this balance that guided our restoration and intervention.

Restored Game Room. | Credit: Clayton Hauck

Confronted with the three (of 19) floors that were fully historic spaces and needed to be preserved intact, as well as half a dozen additional spaces scattered throughout the building, we devised a plan to integrate the new hospitality program. Partnering with the skilled craftspeople who would become the backbone of our restoration efforts and again relying on our “yes, and...” strategy, we were able to surgically remove the historic finishes, coordinate the routing of the necessary mechanical systems, and then reinstall the finishes over the modern building services. 


Restored Cherry Circle Room. | Credit: Clayton Hauck

In addition to the preservation efforts required for the historic features of the building, our initial examination of the site revealed some obvious structural concerns. A 1906 addition to the adjacent Gage building (built by Holabird and Roche around 1898) surcharged the CAA’s foundation, causing the south wall of the building to settle nearly 11 inches. A forensic analysis of the building further revealed inadequate capacity in the floor structure, and our work exposed a hidden and near-fatal structural issue with the spandrel beams framing the north and south facades—the beams were cracked over the entire height of the original building. These conditions, coupled with the building owners’ desire to take advantage of the spectacular lake and park views, called for a repair course that could save and stabilize the building while simultaneously providing added load capacity to install a new rooftop venue.

Rooftop bar structural system. | Credit: Forefront Structural Engineers

Our structural engineer devised an ingenious solution that allowed us to repair, reinforce, and stabilize the building while also accommodating the rooftop addition without adding any load to the exterior walls. After removing the exterior masonry walls at the light court, we repaired the cracked beams; reinforced eight selected columns over their entire length, as well as their associated footings; and installed a new, lighter exterior cladding. Resting atop these newly strengthened columns, we installed a series of floor-height cantilevered trusses to frame the rooftop addition. Finally, a new elevator tower/truss, added over the footprint of a demolished service stair, provides the lateral support necessary to keep the addition from imposing new loads on the remaining un-reinforced building structure. 

Reinforced column footing. | Credit: Forefront Structural Engineers

The most difficult task, by far, was harmonizing the building’s aesthetic. There were glaring inconsistencies between the original 1893 details and the hodgepodge of improvements and modernizations that spanned the subsequent 100 years. The final prong of our “yes, and...” strategy involved adding new color and material palettes, transitional millwork, and cabinetry treatments—what we called the new “DNA”—to create a cohesive and logical whole out of the survey of 20th-century styles that comprised the building. As part of this archaeological work, many added finishes were removed to reveal the original surfaces underneath. Having become historic in their own right, these flooring, lighting, stone, and casework details were salvaged and reinstalled as new finishes in our restored and adapted interiors. 

Bocce court with salvaged gym flooring. | Credit: Clayton Hauck

Throughout the design and building process, the long-forgotten ghosts of the CAA’s designers and craftspeople reached out to guide our work and the work of the many craftspeople who added their skills and talent to this effort. Just prior to the building’s grand opening, the owners held a banquet for all of the craftspeople who worked on the project. As they proudly walked their families through the building, pointing out their contributions, it was clear that the work of preservation is the work of all of us, individuals and communities, and that buildings are built by hand, one piece at a time, in a tradition that ties our past to our future. It is exactly this legacy that allowed us to understand the thinking of the CAA’s original architect, to say “yes, and…”, and to restore this building to public use as the grand space it had once been. 


Original mason's signature carved into brick. | Credit: Eric Nordstrom

Paul Alessandro is an architect and partner at Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture in Chicago. In 2016 the Chicago Athletic Association received a 2016 Driehaus Preservation Award.

#design #Architecture #Houston2016 #PastForward #AdaptiveUse #NationalPreservationAwards

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