Chicago on Foot: We Tour the New Old Post Office and You Can Do the Same

We Chicagoans have memories of the old post office. You know, the building you drive through on the Ike when you’re heading into the Loop? The one where you walk into a marble lobby to buy stamps from a clerk behind a marble counter? The one where you drive up and hand your income tax return to an anonymous soul at 5 minutes before midnight on tax day, assured it will be postmarked with that day’s date?

Yep, that’s the old post office and it’s now officially the capital-O Old Post Office, a gorgeous renovation of the century-old art deco building into a new commercial office building with many amenities for workers in more than 2.5 million square feet of floorspace. The building is three city blocks long from north to south and a city block wide east to west. 

My architecture-obsessed friends and I toured the Old Post Office with a Chicago Architecture Center docent this week. (You can do that too. See tour info below.) Docent Sandy started with a brief history of the building, which was built in 1921 as a mail terminal building and then greatly expanded in 1932 to accommodate the huge volume of postal business from Chicago’s mail-order giants, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck. Both buildings were designed by the preeminent Chicago firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the successor firm to D.H. Burnham and Co. GAPW designed many major Chicago museums and public buildings and its work continued into the late 20th century.

Lobby view showing original light fixtures.

The second building was designed to wrap around the 1921 building. Because the massive footprint would have blocked the planned extension of Congress Parkway, a hole for the parkway was reserved in the base of the building. The parkway’s extension (eventually the Eisenhower Expressway or Interstate 290 if you’re not from Chicago) was completed 20 years later. 

Postal operations in the original building ceased in 1997 and moved to nearby locations. In the 21st century, the building was purchased by 601W, a New York-based real estate company that owns the Aon Center and One Prudential Plaza. The building was completely restored and transformed isnto a commercial office building; the first tenants moved in in 2020. (Current tenants include Uber Freight, PepsiCo, Ferrara Candy Company, Walgreen’s, CISCO Systems and CBOE.)

Lobby area, showing food court entrance at left.

The building’s massive floorplates have some advantages for corporate staffing, as opposed to dividing staff among many floors in a high-rise building. New York Times business writer Jane Margolies describes some of these Chicago “groundscrapers” in this article. (Gift link; no paywall.)

When you enter the Old Post Office from its main entrance on Van Buren Street, you find yourself in the beautifully restored lobby considered to be in the style of “stripped classicism,” according to docent Sandy. However, many elements of art deco remain. The 21st century restoration, done by the Gensler architectural firm, maintained all original materials and ornament, according to the requirements of the Illinois state historic preservation office. The light fixtures that hang from the lobby ceiling, for instance, are all restored originals. The marble floor and walls and the bronze mail insignia that top every gold-leafed panel are original or restored or replaced materials that match the originals. The building’s thousands of windows, however, all had to be replaced. 

Wall exhibit photo showing pre-restoration detritus.

The building, known officially as the Old Post Office, now has meeting areas and a high-end food court on its main level. (You’ll find great food there but no familiar fast-food brands.) The second floor—the amenities floor—features a library, gym, conference center and other meeting areas. The 13-story building is topped with the Meadow, a 3.5-acre rooftop garden, with a quarter-mile running track, 40,000 native plants, pickleball and basketball courts, benches and tables and other facilities that make it suitable for meetings and special events.  

Postcard commemorating dedication of Post Office in February 1933. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. http://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/nby_teich/id/417398, Public Domain.

Our tour took us throughout the first and second floors and to the Meadow. As we walked around the building, our docent pointed out many giant photo replicas taken of pre-restoration interior detritus—suggesting the building's condition before the restoration.

The Chicago Architecture Center offers tours of the Old Post Office at 11am on Tuesdays. The 90-minute tour, in small groups, involves about a mile of walking, plus stairs, escalator and elevator. Tickets are $15 or $8 for CAF members. 

Photos by Nancy S Bishop unless credited otherwise.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.