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Published March 2020

Repositioned. Reimagined. Chicago.

The second season of IIDA and AIA Chicago's Designers & Architects Talk Series


By Jen Levisen


The second season of IIDA and AIA Chicago's Designers & Architects Talk Series continued March 10 with a conversation on the three most newsworthy, timely interior transformations in Chicago: Willis Tower, Tribune Tower, and the Old Post Office. The weeks following this event have been transformative in ways that have affected us personally, professionally, and collectively and have sent ripples through the industry. While we understand that projects across the globe may or may not be paused at this time, we hope this enlightening conversation and the innovative reimagining of iconic architectural spaces in Chicago inspires and encourages creativity.

The rebirth of the city's tallest skyscraper. The transformation of a neo-Gothic landmark. The largest example of adaptive reuse in the country. Along with being famous for food, jazz music, and 1920s gangsters, Chicago is well-known worldwide for its plethora of unique architectural styles. And the architects and designers leading the charge today are doing their predecessors proud.


Moderated by Zurich Esposito, Hon. AIA, Executive Vice President of AIA Chicago, the panel featured Todd Heiser, IIDA, Principal, Gensler; Sheryl Schulze, Principal, Gensler; Meg Prendergast, IIDA, Principal, The Gettys Group; and Lee Golub, Managing Principal, Golub & Company.

"The individuals joining me tonight are leading transformative projects of some of Chicago's most iconic buildings," said Esposito.

Willis Tower

Originally designed by SOM and completed around 1974, at 110 stories, the Willis Tower is still the tallest building in Chicago and one of the three tallest in North America. “Once home to only one tenant, it is now home to 15,000 tenants, and thanks to Todd Heiser and team, it is being recreated and reopened by Gensler," said Esposito.


Heiser, who is also co-managing director of Gensler's Chicago office, grew up just outside of the city. He said working on a project like Willis Tower, "or Sears Tower as so many of us still call it,” was a humbling experience and one that, for Gensler, has been a labor of love for the last five years.


As the tower went through a series of additions in the 1980s, a massive, almost impenetrable boundary was created around the base. "Much of our work was opening up the tower and allowing you to access the ground plate," said Heiser. "We want to make it less of a fortress and create Chicago's next plaza. This work, along with the updated lobby experience, celebrates the businesses that call the tower home."


The public lobby repositioning features a food hall, meeting and events space, restaurants, entertainment, a rooftop park, and skylight offering views of the south side of Willis Tower supported by 75,000-pound beams, and still "the fastest elevators in North America."

The new space is called Catalog, in honor of the building's initial tenant, Sears, Roebuck & Co., and serves not only the building's tenants, but it's more than 1.7 million annual visitors.

"The new space opens up the building tremendously," said Heiser, " and helps to position the area as Chicago's next great neighborhood."

Heiser's work is part of a more than $500 million renovation, the most significant restorative transformation in the building's 46-year history. In late 2019, the tower earned the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design's (LEED) Platinum designation.

Old Post Office

Designed by the same Chicago architects behind our other favorite buildings – the Wrigley Building and Merchandise Mart – The Old Post Office was built in 1921 and, for quite a while, was the largest post office in the world. “By the mid-90s, however, it's use was replaced, and the building was left vacant and neglected. But as Sheryl will tell us, 'The wait was worth it,'" said Esposito.


An icon that needed life support. The awakening of a sleeping giant. "Or sleeping beauty as we affectionately call her," said Schulze, "and we are very grateful for our developer, 601W Cos., who is her prince."


Gensler, whose efforts were led by Schulze and Grant Uhlir, principal, came to the project officially with 601W Cos., in May of 2016, because of their in-depth knowledge of the building.

"We were involved with several developers over the years who were interested in the redevelopment of the building, and that ultimately led to us being the best fit for 601." 

Set to be completed in 2020, the $800 million-plus redevelopment, and currently the largest example of adaptive reuse in the country, has modernized the massive structure, without sacrificing its historic character.

Historic character that included "a lot of indoor water features we didn't have to pay for," joked Schulze.


"This building is very unique in nature," said Schulze. "It's comprised of three buildings, with 250,000 square foot sweeping floor plates, 18-foot ceiling heights and varying floor heights that create several loft-like spaces."