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Lost gem by Daniel Burnham & Co. gets second life in Chicago Loop

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The National, a restored 1907 high-rise, energizes a formerly tired corner of downtown

The turn-of-the-century skyscraper at 125 Clark Street in Chicago’s Loop hasn’t gotten much time in the spotlight, and for good reason. Surrounded by the city’s rich architectural heritage, the aged 1907 high-rise easily gets overlooked among a crowd of groundbreaking designs.

“This building is next to a stretch of Dearborn that basically contains the history of American commercial architecture, and many of the buildings that invented American modernism,” says Aric Lasher, architect and principal at local firm HBRA Architects. “There’s a reason Chicago has been called the Florence of American architecture.”

But 125 Clark, which was designed by legendary architect Daniel Burnham’s firm, D. H. Burnham & Company, deserves more attention from architecture fans and historians. A recent renovation, refurbishment, and rebranding as The National may help this “lost” Loop gem find its place amid the city’s crowded and historic skyline.

“What’s unfortunate is that it was hiding in plain sight,” says Lasher, whose firm oversaw the recent restoration. “Because of its degradation and blackened color, it was invisible to people.”

Built in 1907 as the Commercial National Bank Building, the 20-story commercial high-rise, epitomized the Classical Revival style of the period, and stands as the city’s oldest surviving commercial high-rise by D. H. Burnham & Company (Louis Graham was the lead architect). Furthering the trends popularized at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the building married the temple-style elements of bank buildings with emerging high-rise designs.

After serving as a headquarters for the namesake bank, which went out of business shortly thereafter, the building hasn’t had an easy life. While changing hands multiple times—once owned by a local utility, CommonWealth Edison and used in part as an appliance showroom, it was recently used as an administration building for the city school district—its undergone multiple unsympathetic additions, adjustments, and repairs. The original elevators and lavish boardroom were both lost. In the past few decades, the under-appreciated exterior has taken on a sooty appearance, renovations to the ground floor created an bland retail arcade, and unfortunate interior redesigns resulted in a “complete wreck” that was “nearly unsalvageable,” says Lasher.

Last year, Blue Star Properties purchased the building for $28 million, and committed to investing $100 million in redesign, restoration, and refurbishment. Since the structure wasn’t landmarked and there wasn’t enough available to do a complete restoration back to its original look, Blue Star and Lasher remade the building with an eye towards “retaining the building’s sense of evolution,” restoring historic touches from different periods while adding and maintaining modern elements that would make it more contemporary and commercially viable. Lobbies contains a refreshed, post-war industrial feel, with marble walls and stainless steel columns, while the new ground floor Revival Food Hall contains custom tile from the original manufacturer used in 1907. It’s now a tableau of styles, from Neo-Classical and Renaissance Revival to American post-war modernism.

Cleaning the facade was “eye-opening,” says Lasher, while other restorations helped breathe life into what was a stuffy, dreary space. An interior light well was reconcieved as an internal courtyard for tenants, while tenant space was patched up and upgraded. Revival Food Hall, which now dominates the first floor, re-energized what was a tired retail arcade, boasting custom furniture and woodworking by local furniture collective Dock6.

“It was a fairly gentle approach,” says Lasher.

The redesign created a mixed-use building that fits in with the growing residential and commercial developments reshaping the Loop. The 240,000--square-foot food hall on the ground floor features more than a dozen restaurants, and a huge communal table “recycled” from an old boardroom table from an upstairs offices, while the rest of the building contains high-ceilinged office space, including the headquarters of PaperSource and a WeWork space.

While the final stages of the restoration are still in process—the facade continues to be patched and cleaned, and the original bank vault will be transformed into an events space—the building officially reopened this past August, brightening the block and drawing extensive foot traffic in the food court. Lasher wasn’t able to fully restore an under-appreciated Burnham & Co. gem, but he’s glad he was able to help a grand old build finally get “loved, attracted, and noticed.”