On May 8, 2020, a team from Wight & Company entered the historic Stockyard Bank Building at the northwest corner of Halsted Street and Exchange Avenue. They snapped some photos of what was once a bustling hub of commerce supporting the tens of thousands of individuals who toiled at the Union Stock Yards, Chicago’s infamous meatpacking district. The building had lied dormant since 1973 and fallen into disrepair inside and out. A designated historic landmark since 2008 by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the bank needed serious repair in order to once again be in an occupiable state.
In September of 2020, Wight was tasked by the City of Chicago's Department of Assets, Information, and Services (AIS) with providing a full facility assessment and stabilization report for the building. As part of this, we documented current conditions, proposed critical upgrades, and – upon approval from the City and with a $1.5M budget - subsequently coordinated with a local contractor to carry out these crucial stabilization and safety measures, all within a period of three months. The work was documented throughout, and we built a special microsite to share some of the stunning historical photos and how those same spaces look today.
If you drive by the building today, you might not realize all that went on behind the scenes and above eye level during that time. This type of architectural work is often hidden from site, but it’s essential for shoring up structures such as the Stockyard Bank Building, an anchor institution in its heyday that still holds significant historical value. We sat down with project lead Scott Steffes to discuss the finer points of this project and understand the importance of abatement, safety, and security to the world of architecture and beyond.
We often say that every community has its own DNA. And the Stockyard bank is a visual representation of the DNA of this community.
Q: Why was Wight interested in a project like this?
We have a strong relationship with the City of Chicago, and are always interested in continuing that relationship. From the restoration of the Chicago Cultural Center to the addition of a Green Roof on City Hall, when the City has had challenging projects, we’ve been able to collaborate with them to find solutions.
We were also excited to work on a landmarked building that has such historical significance. It’s a beautiful building – which is part of the reason why it was designated a historical landmark in the first place – but also because of the technical advances in architecture and engineering. More importantly, it’s significant to the surrounding communities. There was briefly a question of whether the building should be torn down and we said absolutely not. Across Chicago and beyond, Wight has been committed to community-based projects that bring revitalization through restoration and/or adaptive reuse, and after viewing the original plans and the building itself, we determined there was a lot that the Bank building still had to give.
Q: What were some surprises you discovered as you carried out this work?
Given our initial glimpses at the seemingly deteriorated interior spaces, we were shocked at how good of shape the building was structurally. The Bank has sat vacant for almost half a century, and the basement had experienced flooding for at least the last decade. However, the foundation and exterior walls were in relatively great shape.
What's interesting is that the Bank was originally built through a multidisciplinary approach by Epstein as both architect and engineer. That firm was one of the first, if not the first, dual architecture-engineering firms in Chicago. That dual expertise showed in the design and was no small reason that the infrastructure was so strong 100 years later. As a multi-disciplinary firm ourselves, we take great pride in this success.
Q: You’ve contributed to award-winning architecture projects around the world, but this project is one that you are particularly excited about. What makes this type of work valuable to the discipline?
There’s so much that makes this project significant. First, a building like this demonstrates that quality design can literally stand for over 100 years and still be relevant. This goes for the aesthetic as well as the integration of engineering and architecture. The building’s mechanical and electrical systems had been modernized at least once, but the plumbing and elevators are all still the original. We noted that the original built-in mechanical ducts, ventilation, and electrical were very sophisticated for their time. For example, modern light bulbs had been used to express the aesthetics of the building.
The less glamorous aspects are also valuable. For example, I find the details of the basement water mitigation particularly interesting. Once most of the water was initially drained out of the basement, we were able to find out where it was leaking in, capped most of those spots, and pumped out the remaining water. Essentially, we were able to mitigate the leaks but not stop them altogether, but that’s actually a good thing because it’s being done in a controlled way. If we stopped those leaks entirely, pressure could build up that would ultimately cause more and bigger damage.
On the sustainability front, this building is emblematic of our need as a discipline to reduce our carbon footprint through renovation and adaptive re-use of the buildings around us. At Wight and Company, we've committed to the AIA 2030 challenge and SE2050, among other initiatives, to reduce our carbon footprint in design and engineering of both new and existing structures. This is important because building materials and transporting them can be a significant driver of carbon emissions. Even tearing down and disposing of materials from an old building uses a lot of carbon. Shoring up buildings like the Bank Building for future repurposing, therefore, creates a much, much smaller carbon footprint.
Finally, I can't help but contemplate what the experience was like for an average person to walk in there 100 years ago. Government buildings can be very grandiose and by extension very intimidating. But this building is both grand in design and welcomed the everyday person through the doors. Each of the three levels had a public lobby. So, I like to envision this beautiful space with white marble filled with stockyard workers going to cash their paychecks every Friday. It truly was a space that brought together a range of individuals from the community.
Q: How do you think this project will contribute to the surrounding communities and Chicago residents more broadly?
Much like it was during its heyday, the Stockyard Bank Building in the future can be an anchor point for development and a focal point of community pride and history. We often say that every community has its own DNA. And the Stockyard bank is a visual representation of the DNA of this community.
We shape this next phase of the building might take is unknown–and outside of the scope of our work on this project. But it’s a big structure, and I think what it becomes will help determine the trajectory of the surrounding area and drive business for the community.
The Bank is also important as a visual representation. During this project, we cleaned up the brick, added new gutters, and cleaned a portion at the entrance to demonstrate what the building could look like when it’s fully revitalized. Hopefully, that vision will be a driver to get other people to clean up their buildings and sites as well.
Q: What did you and the team learn throughout this process that you’ll apply to future design projects?
Collaboration was key to the success of this project, and the intentional process our team used throughout re-affirmed our belief that strategic thinking and open communication with all entities is essential. This transparent, highly collaborative approach was proposed by Wight from day one of the project. We set expectations rooted in our expertise in Integrated Design to keep this on track.
We also couldn’t have asked for better partners than CCJM (for MEP) and AltusWorks (for historic preservation). Particularly special on this project was how open and frequent the communication was with what’s known as the Job Order Contractor (JOC) hired by the City, in this case, FH Paschen. Whether it was direct feedback on costs and schedule or responding to our suggestions, they talked to somebody from our team almost every day.
We also sincerely appreciate the dedicated and focused collaboration with AIS that was provided throughout the process and are honored to have had the opportunity to intimately experience the grandeur of the Stockyard Bank Building. We look forward to this historical gem once again becoming a vital neighborhood hub within the City of Chicago.
To learn more about the project and see the space up close, please visit our microsite.