Old Main Post Office

quick stats

  • LOCATION: 433 W. Van Burn Street, Chicago, Cook County
  • STATUS: Redevelopment underway (as of 2019)
  • BUILT: 1921 with 1932 expansion
  • SITE TYPE: Governmental, Post Office
  • GEOGRAPHY: Chicago
  • OWNER AT TIME OF LISTING: Public, Federal
  • CURRENT USE: Offices and retail, pending
  • DESIGNATIONS: National Register of Historic Places (2001), City of Chicago Landmark (2018)
  • TAKE ACTION: Voice your support at future public meetings! Landmarks Illinois will share information regarding upcoming public approval phases when citizens can give input.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Historic Significance

The Old Main Post Office is one of the most visible buildings in the Chicago Loop. Straddling major rail and subway corridors as well as the Eisenhower Expressway, the massive building serves as a physical gateway to downtown for thousands of travelers each day. Built in 1921 and expanded in 1934, it was designed by one of Chicago’s best known architecture firms, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. The massive limestone façade is a mammoth example of the Classic Art Deco style, and the main lobby features lavish details like white marble and gold glass mosaics. As a hub of activity for the United States Postal Service, the majority of the building has traditionally focused on a variety of mail sorting operations. At the peak of its activity, the Old Main Post Office was a technological and administrative marvel. Touted as the largest post office in the world, the complex was capable of moving 19 million letters in a single day. With 13 floors and 2.5 million square feet, the Old Main Post Office is truly one of Chicago’s most epic buildings. In 2001, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Threat at Time Listing - 1997

In 1996, the United States Postal Service shut down operations at the Old Main Post Office in favor of a new facility across the street that would more easily accommodate new sorting technology. Concerned about the fate of the iconic structure, Landmarks Illinois included the Old Main Post Office in our 1997 Most Endangered list. While this listing helped bring much-needed attention to the historic structure, it was only the beginning of Landmarks Illinois’ efforts on its behalf. Along with city and state preservation staff members, LI has monitored the post office and provided advocacy and technical assistance toward a range of preservation efforts. Over the years, this has included meetings with various developer teams and architects, attendance at building court hearings and service as a consulting party to the Section 106 process during the U.S. Postal Services closure of the building.

By 1998, the Postal Service had officially placed the building on the market. Numerous redevelopment plans surfaced over the following years but, unfortunately, none were successful. A British developer, Bill Davies, purchased the building in 2009 for $24 million, but seven years of attempts to redevelop the historic site ended with numerous false-starts and broken deals. In 2016, after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel threatened to seize the site through eminent domain, Davies sold the Old Main Post Office to commercial real estate developer 601W Companies.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Preservation Efforts

Since purchasing the massive structure, 601W has worked with global architecture firm Gensler to restore the Art Deco icon to its former glory. Its $292 million rehabilitation will transform the former Post Office into a hub of retail and office space, including the addition of a food hall, three-acre rooftop terrace, public Riverwalk and 2,400 new windows.

Billed as the largest adaptive reuse project in the nation, the project is complex and will depend on a careful arrangement of private investment, public protections and historic tax incentives. As with other large projects in Chicago, like the Uptown Theatre and Old Cook County Hospital, the federal historic tax credit has proven to be critical financing tool for this complicated redevelopment. Another important step forward for the project occurred in April 2018, when the City of Chicago officially designated the building a Chicago Landmark, which provided an added measure of protection as well as additional economic incentives through Chicago’s Class L Property Tax Incentive. Taken together, these tax incentives, along with a dedicated team of professionals and years of advocacy work, helped the 601W redevelopment plan succeed where others had not.

By summer 2018, the elaborate lobby had been “fully restored to its original Roaring Twenties extravagance,” featuring original brass medallions, lighting features, revolving doors and ornamentation that had been put into storage when the complex closed over 20 years earlier. Later in 2018, Walgreens announced it would become the first tenant of the newly redeveloped building, moving 1,800 employees to a redeveloped 200,000-square-foot space within the building. Soon after, Ferrara Candy announced it would also be moving its headquarters to the Old Main Post Office. As additional tenants line up for space in the iconic building, Landmarks Illinois and preservationists across the state are looking forward to the 2019 reopening of the Old Main Post Office after a long but rewarding struggle.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

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