New plans for Old Post Office aim to be 'marvelous'

July 24, 2013 (CHICAGO)

Seventeen years of emptiness, a weathered face, some growing weeds. But inside, there is grandeur. A lobby 40 feet tall, more than a football field long, that apart from some peeling paint, looks very much as it did when this was the biggest post office in the world. Gold accented inlay, majestic lighting, medallions saluting Chicago - the transportation hub. A marriage of art and architecture.

"I always make the comment, let's go back to the future," said Joe Antunovich, who is designing a new life for an old hulk, and in the tradition of Burnham, he's making no small plans.

"It's the gateway to the city. You come in - the expressway runs through it, three train lines run under it, the river runs alongside it, and this is the most marvelous gateway building anyone could imagine to any city in the world," Antunovich said.

Antunovich and British owner Bill Davis see a residential and retail city within a city. But getting to "marvelous" will take a bit. Let's explore.

What was once the injury compensation office is a bit beat up by time and neglect. Floor buckling. True throughout. But the building is solid, and the step one plan is to turn the office section into as many as 500 rental apartments - most of them smaller, more affordable.

"I would think within 12 months' time we'll have people living here, and that will be fantastic," said Martin Mulryan, International Property Developers.

Should that work, there's plenty of room for expansion; 2.7 million square feet. The old mail sorting floors seem endless in size. Where the executives once worked on the fourth floor, there could be a gentle remake of the oak-paneled Postmaster's office. And not far from the remains of the first floor PO boxes is a huge walk-in safe with a door that feels nuclear-bomb proof. Casino anyone? Well, that's not part of the immediate plan, but the door is not closed to it. So, is there a name for this mega project?

"Oh I just call it marvelous," said Antunovich.

Phase one of this project will top $1 billion. The green light from the city council Wednesday makes Project Marvelous easier to sell to investors. The developers are confident the money will be. Residential first, then retail, and if the stepping stones succeed, the 20-year plan is for three office towers - one that would look down on the Willis Tower across the river.

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