Putting juice in a shell
08/08/2012 10:00 PM
Real estate agents sometimes refer to a property as having good bones. Whether the building is beautifully maintained or a fixer-upper, the message is basically, look beyond the cosmetic problems — this place was well built.
That’s an apt description of a building at 1200 West Randolph. Six months ago if you passed by the structure, you might think, well, this place has some potential, but it probably needs a bit of tender loving care to get it ready for a new business. The architectural elements also indicated the building was a real gem decades earlier.
Fast forward to August 2012, and what has emerged is a classic example of the Chicago rehabilitation effort known as adaptive reuse. Several buildings along the North Branch of the Chicago River fit this model, most notably the Groupon headquarters that spent its formative years as the home of Montgomery Ward.
The West Loop building I draw your attention to is smaller, but the rehab effort has been something to see. And, beginning this week the results of that effort will at last be visible. The building now houses the new City Winery. The business itself is certainly unique, with its combination of a working winery, restaurant and music performance venue. What’s equally interesting is how a 100-year-old building was completely transformed.
If there is anything in the bones of this West Randolph building that made it a logical choice for a particular type of business, it’s definitely food. In the early 1930s, the building housed United Wholesale Grocers, Inc., when West Randolph was a bustling hub of food distribution. That’s not unusual, according to Paul Alessandro, an architect at the West Loop firm Hartshorne Plunkard.
“Originally, these buildings were mostly meat and produce processors,” Alessandro said. “The buildings themselves are kind of muscular and raw, so they’re very easy to turn into vintage or modern spaces.”
The job of an architect, he said, is to be sensitive to the context without taking anything away from the building or neighborhood. The opportunity to create something with that sensitivity might not have occurred without a serendipitous meeting between Robin Wold, the former owner of 1200 W. Randolph, and Michael Dorf, who owns it now.
“Michael loved the building when he saw it because he loved the architecture, the old wood framing, the brick, the terra cotta,” Wold said. “He thought it would be perfect. I was happy because I thought the building was a jewel on Randolph Street. They’re using a lot of the materials that were there.”
Even the three-inch-thick white oak from the warehouse mezzanine has been re-purposed, and will have a second life in City Winery: it’s been turned into 160 tabletops.
Robin Wold has been in the food business most of her life. Her father had a deli when she was growing up. Wold started her own business in 1980. She had a long career as a wholesaler with Robin’s Food Distribution until she retired a few years ago. She was in a small sorority of successful Chicago female entrepreneurs. She was also one of the founders of the Randolph-Fulton Market Association, along with Karen Boehning, who helped Wold secure her WBE certification, and Robert Pastorelli.
When Wold talks about the 1200 W. Randolph building, it’s obvious the space holds a special meaning for her. It may have spent most of the past century as a frozen food distribution center, but there are unmistakable architectural elements inside and out.
“To me the building was very special,” she said. “I didn’t want to sell it to someone who would knock it down or not respect its history. It will be a nice evolution for the building when the winery opens. It’s truly an anchor building for the West Randolph/Fulton Market area that’s been here for 100 years and is being brought back in a respectful way. I think it will be very beautiful when it’s done.”
It turns out she needn’t have worried about the new owner’s respect for the structure. The neighborhood helped seal the deal, but the building was the main attraction for Dorf. He fell in love with the arches and incorporated them into the final décor. Actually, the West Loop was not in his original plans. In fact, one of the prime contenders was the Louis Sullivan-designed building on State Street that houses the new Loop Target Store.
“We looked in River North, too,” Dorf said. “But, when we saw this, it was an obvious location.”
Creating a winery out of an old warehouse didn’t come cheap. Dorf said the renovation costs ran about $4 million, a higher price than he’d originally planned. He shrugged and told me it just meant he’d need more investors and a bigger loan. It didn’t hurt that he’d already established a successful business model with City Winery in New York.
“The New York business is a success, with positive cash-flow,” he said. “There are a lot of similarities between New York and Chicago. There’s a passion in Chicago for wine and craft beer and food.”
Dorf expects City Winery Chicago to be filled most nights. He’s hired 100 employees so the old food warehouse will be buzzing with activity when it opens in a few days. Corporate events will help supplement the regular business, but regular diners and music enthusiasts in search of a new hot spot will be the prime audience.
Of course, the real target is wine lovers. The ambitious City Winery schedule includes classes on winemaking and programs where customers can invest in a barrel. Dorf’s team has spared no expense in assuring a quality product.
“When you ship grapes as far as we’re going to, it takes some chutzpah,” he said. “We take wine very seriously.”