The Wabash Building
The Wabash Building architects and engineers overcame challenges reminiscent of those that confronted Ferdinand Peck and the Auditorium Association. They designed and constructed a multipurpose building – in this instance a vertical campus – on a space restricted site. The Wabash Building along with the recently completed Goodman Center field house would advance Roosevelt University’s visibility and appeal as an urban residential campus. It would emphasize a core commitment to the transformative values of social justice and sustainability. Social justice and sustainability were already deeply integrated into the Roosevelt curriculum. Now they would be manifest in the new building’s design.
The Wabash Building would neither mimic nor overshadow its neighbor, the Auditorium, a Chicago architectural icon. In the words of Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin, it achieved a “genuine, artful dialogue between past and present.”
The Wabash Building stands on site of the Giles Building, acquired by Roosevelt in 1951 soon after the college moved into the Auditorium Building.
The post World War II era had witnessed a push for urban renewal and efforts to protect and enhance Chicago’s urban core. Construction of the Prudential Building in 1957 was a harbinger of Loop development. Growth in central city higher education was spurred by the opening of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus in 1965. The University had previously offered classes at Navy Pier known locally as “Harvard on the Rocks”.
In 1970, to allow expansion of its on-campus housing, Roosevelt demolished the Giles Building to construct a 19 story dormitory, the Herman Crown Center. Still primarily a commuter campus, the new dorm would provide housing for foreign students. After 2004, as the University become more residential, students found more attractive housing at the University Center on State Street, a joint venture with DePaul University, Columbia College and later, Robert Morris University.
A change in Chicago fire codes in 2004 required most pre-1975 buildings to adhere to more stringent standards including installation of sprinklers. Rather than undertaking a costly retrofit of the Herman Crown Center, Roosevelt worked with architect Christopher Groesbeck and his VOA Associates team including Jeffery Hrubec and Michael Siegel to design a new vertical campus. To increase the buildable lot size, the University purchased the Fine Arts Annex that adjoined the Herman Crown Center to the north. The façade of the Fine Arts Annex would be incorporated into the Wabash Building.
Roosevelt was not the only institution of higher learning to expand in the Loop around the turn of the 21th century. DePaul University and Robert Morris University grew by repurposing State Street department stores with their flexible open space floor plans. Columbia College expanded in the South Loop through construction (notably a 2010 Media Production Center designed by Studio Gang) and repurposing of many examples of Chicago School Architecture. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago acquired Loop properties for dorms, offices, classroom, and gallery space and leased floors in the venerable Sullivan Center. John Marshall Law School had long occupied a former Maurice Rothschild department store property. Befitting a national if not global urban hub, business, finance, real estate and law are prominent offerings at Loop Universities as are the arts and media.
The challenge facing VOA’s Wabash Building design team was to re-envision a traditional campus layout to fit 225,000 square feet of academic space and 600 plus residence beds onto a 17,500 square foot land locked parcel. The dimensions and configurations of campus buildings that are usually spread out horizontally were entered as quantities on spread sheets and then re-imagined as bubbles. Adjacencies were formed and the requisite space was laid out along a metaphorical vertical street. Elevators would serve as public streets connecting programs and public space.
The design of the Wabash Building had to accommodate the characteristics of the building site. The Auditorium had squeezed offices and hotel rooms between its theater and its lot lines, a solution that did not work as well as intended. The Wabash Building had a long and narrow site with potential viewscapes to the east, south and west. To the north the Wabash Building would abut a developable parcel, currently a parking lot. A central structural core would compress office, classroom and dorm space and also would pose engineering issues. Engineering also had to contend with the pyramid foundation of the Auditorium Building. The solution was an offset core on the north façade maximizing multipurpose space and taking advantage of the three remaining viewscapes that encompassed Lake Michigan, Grant Park and the Museum Campus.
The “Rebori Facade” of the Fine Arts Annex required a landmark setback on the Wabash Building north wall. The wedding cake foundation of the Auditorium Building required that a portion of the Wabash Building south wall be suspended from a truss.
The Wabash Building presents a thin slab reaching skyward. Its inward and outward canting walls were inspired by the stacked rhomboids of sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column.” The idiosyncratic shape is said to express the idea that education transforms students and is never truly complete. It provides a visually pleasing silhouette against Chicago’s ever changing sky and stands out against the red façade of the CNA Building to the north.
Christopher Groesbeck’s inspiration for the blue and green glass of the tower’s façade was Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawings. The VOA design team experimented with alternative patterns and color combinations in studio and in situ. Groesbeck has commented that the multi-hued façade is reflective of Roosevelt’s diversity.
The Wabash Building interior space is contemporary and color coded by use. Like any campus, horizontal or vertical, students and faculty have their unique routes. As an adjunct Professor, I enjoy getting coffee in the second floor dining hall and, for entertainment, watching the L traverse a wall of glass. At night the elevators are active with students going to class, labs, the exercise rooms, to their rooms with food or out to the City. I teach on the 12th floor with state of the art equipment and a clear view into the Auditorium tower (former) offices of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan and their draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright. Walking to the west end of the building, I can admire Harry Weese’s Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center. Student’s living in dorm rooms with the same exposure can watch those awaiting trial playing ball on the facilities roof. Shifting their view to the right they can see the Willis Tower and the statue of Ceres atop the Board of Trade. Those in rooms with a south exposure can see the Lake, Grant Park and the wall of glass high-rises in the South Loop. The building has ample private and public space. It’s designers thought of neighborhoods. It is a vertical community.
Beyond creating an urban campus in the urban core, Roosevelt and VOA believed that attaining Achievement of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification was an essential goal for the Wabash Building. A commitment to social justice is central to Roosevelt’s mission and a continuation of Ferdinand Peck’s vision for the Auditorium. Sustainability in design and construction are essential to the conceptualization and promotion of social justice.
Sustainable design softens a buildings footprint on the planet, lowers energy consumption and appeals to those with a preference for and appreciation of green buildings. Over 20 percent of the materials used in the Wabash Building contains recycled content, carpets are 60 percent recycled plastic containers, wood products are Forest Stewardship Council certified, paint is non-toxic low VOC, there are 8,000 square feet of green roofs, and the building has an advanced tri-sorter waste recycling system. The added cost of the Wabash Building’s energy efficiency and renewable features will pay back in approximately 9 years.
The Wabash Building has received numerous awards for achievements in architecture and sustainability. In June 2015 Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building won the 2015 International Real Estate Federation’s World Gold Prix d’Excellence Award at its recent World Congress meeting held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. One of the highest honors given annually to outstanding projects in a variety of categories, the international award recognizes the Wabash Building in the Purpose Built category, specifically for supporting Roosevelt’s mission of social justice as a “learning-living laboratory for sustainability.”Further reading
VOA invited my Building Chicago class to their offices in the Railway Exchange Building for a presentation on the Wabash Building (VOA) by architect Jeffery Hrubec, AIA, LEED AP (Senior Vice President, VOA Associates Incorporated) , a member of the Wabash Building design team. Ideas and slides from the presentation are used in this post.
A longer presentation “Roosevelt University Wabash Expansion” by Lesley Slavitt (Vice-President, Government Relations, Roosevelt University) and Christopher Groesbeck, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP (Principal, VOA Associates Incorporated) is available online at http://webfiles.architecture.org/lunchtalks/120222_Groesbeck.pdf.
For information on the Wabash Building and sustainability, Dr. Sophia Dermisi and Dr. Margot B. Weinstein have shared their conference presentation “Sustainability and Innovation in one university: Roosevelt University’s Vertical Campus in Chicago.”
I have liberally drawn observations and pictures from several excellent blog posts on the Wabash Building:
Blair Kamin, “Higher Learning: Roosevelt’s new tower adds sizzle to Chicago’s skyline, but can it build a campus in the sky?” Chicago Tribune, April 12, 2012
Lynn Becker, “A Brigadoon Moment at Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium,” ArchitectureChicago Plus, March 11, 2011
Chicago.Designslinger, “Wabash Building – Roosevelt University,” February 24, 2015