As tech companies continue to take over historic office spaces in downtown Chicago, they walk a fine line with the architects and interior designers. How do you celebrate and preserve early 20th century work without dulling that youthful energy critical to so many software companies? Perkins+Will have struck that balance at the Chicago offices of Swiss e-commerce giant hybris.
To be fair, the firm started with a powerful space. The company has two noncontiguous floors of the Civic Opera Building at 20 North Wacker Drive, a throne-shaped colossus on the Chicago River that architectural firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White is said—probably apocryphally—to have faced west so it turned its back on New York City. Programmers, sales people, and managers have occupied the building’s 29th floor for some time, but hybris’ recent expansion onto the 39th floor does more than double the company’s footprint—it lands it in the boozy, rarified air of the former Tower Club, which once occupied the same space.
Started as the Electric Club in 1916 by the building’s owner, British-American business magnate Samuel Insull (who, according to legend, inspired the Monopoly character Rich Uncle Pennybags), the Tower Club’s dark wood and Tudor archways hosted dignitaries and high rollers for 95 years. In 2011 its patrons bid farewell with a final toast.
Old boys clubs may be fading along with the three-martini lunch and the social norms that sustained them, but companies like hybris fit surprisingly well into vaunted spaces like the Tower Club. hybris director Doug Gaffney pointed out the wooden drop ceiling and restored floor made up of regal slabs of Ohio bluestone, looking not unlike the floor of a medieval castle. Slender, arched windows and rich wood detailing convey a coziness as well as a touch of the same standoffishness its stiff-lipped progenitors probably exuded. “This is why we didn’t just want to take a hand grenade and rip this all out,” said Gaffney. “There’s a lot of history, and we wanted a unique space.”
Perkins+Will restored the club lounge, retaining a ceiling-height humidor, fireplace, and a 75-year-old bar. The architects added contemporary touches, like proper lighting and meeting spaces ringed with floor-to-ceiling glass panels. Instead of storing members’ cigars, the humidor now holds employee ID cards, while a stolid wooden door displaying the names of Tower Club presidents is repurposed in hybris’ board room.
Splashes of the company’s signature blue are apparent everywhere, though subdued on the Tower Club floor compared to hybris’ 29th floor operations. The north and south wings, which house work stations and meeting spaces, are similarly modern. Though details are preserved, hybris’ intervention is decidedly not pure preservation. But nor were previous retrofits that covered up historic details with drop ceilings, duct work, and acoustical tiles. “We uncovered layers of build outs, like peeling an onion,” said Perkins+Will project manager Eric Evangelista.
The company’s 29th floor is centered around a large circular area, linking a cafe, lounge, and elevator bays to the front desk. Like the open floor plan workstations, it is a nod to transparency that perhaps would have ruffled some patrician sensibilities in the original Tower Club. Or maybe they would have welcomed hybris, a global company whose revenue has soared in recent years. Either way, someone will raise a glass.