The concrete mass at 400 South Jefferson Street in Chicago was for a long time the last place American soldiers saw before departing for military duty overseas. The Alfred Alschuler & R. N. Friedman building opened in 1946. Its curved corners and central tower jutting up in between striped bands of masonry are vintage Bauhaus—its style in service to the sheer bulk of the building, which takes up nearly a whole city block in Chicago’s Near West Side.
When food conglomerate Sara Lee broke up its operations into several smaller companies, the North American meat business, Hillshire Brands, announced it would restore and renovate 400 South Jefferson to the tune of about $30 million. Sara Lee was based in Chicago for more than 60 years before moving to Downers Grove in 2005, so the return of Hillshire Brands was somewhat of a homecoming. The city offered up to $6.5 million in tax increment financing to make it happen. Hillshire’s new headquarters, which opened in late 2013, installed a plaque commemorating the building’s military history. And while its design team swapped some bands of solid brick for a wealth of new windows, they benefitted from the building’s fortress-like sturdiness. “The strength of the building was about as solid as a rock,” said Bryan Tunison, senior project manager with engineering firm Proteus Group, who worked with Sterling Bay on the project. “It was built like a bomb shelter.”
Bent glass wraps around the building’s curved corners, continuing a ribbon of Guardian SunGuard SuperNeutral 68 windows. “The low tint, clear color complimented the 1940s streamlined aesthetic of the building,” said Proteus’ Mark Maturo in a statement.
In relishing raw steel, rough wood finishes, and exposed concrete floors, the interiors stand in stark contrast to Sara Lee’s suburban corporate campus. Universal 8 by 8 workstations populate the flexible space, where large, isolated offices once stood. Interior designers at Perkins + Will salvaged wood from two water towers demolished during construction. They sliced the thick slabs of wood, revealing blacks, reds, and whites that would lend texture and authenticity to alcoves and accent walls throughout the building. Original bronze doors remain as wall art throughout the building. “The word [the client] used was ‘authentic,’ but nothing too precious,” said Perkins + Will associate principal and project manager Eric Mersmann. “A lot of the vernacular for the space came from the industrial building itself.”
The 230,000-square-foot office space is spread over four main floors and three tower floors above that. Each floor has a main gathering space, with only one coffee and food pantry area per floor, which Mersmann said is meant to encourage community among employees. The single-room tower floors contain conference rooms and an employee lounge, with a roof deck made of ipe wood.
The celebrity test kitchens may belie the building’s Spartan history, but the speed of the project’s realization recalls its military regimen. In less than 12 months the design team drew up plans, got permits, and built out the space, from start to finish.