Artfully Rescuing an Old Office Building

The devil is in the details at Chicago’s Hairpin Lofts building. Look carefully at the renovated exterior of this majestic, six-story triangular structure, and you’ll see that it’s bedecked with camel insignias. Constructed in 1930, when ladies had pinned-up hairdos, this National Historic Landmark originally housed the offices of the Hump Hair Pin company. In1947, it was converted into the Morris Sachs department store, followed by an assortment of retail and medical uses. By the1990’s the building had fallen into disuse, but luckily, in 2007, it was acquired by the City, which then sold it to Brinshore Development for $1.00. After an extensive facelift four years later, it now houses the Hairpin Arts Center on the second floor, 28 mixed-income residential apartments, and a curio shop on street level.

The gut rehab focused on maximizing comfort and daylight while minimizing utility bills and preserving the building’s history. Hairpin's 1930 limestone exterior was painstakingly recreated. On the upper residential floors, energy-efficient, aluminum-clad windows were installed, and the art gallery's floor-to-ceiling display windows were restored, letting in plenty of light even on rainy days. Non-toxic paints and finishes cover the walls and ceiling, coupled with terrazzo and other original building materials. Today, when arts center patrons come for an exhibit or an open mike, they pass through an ornate entryway that is the reconstructed tile façade of the Senkowski Home Bakery once located a few blocks away.

Hairpin’s tenants don’t need air conditioners, due to the structure’s geothermal cooling (and heating) system that draws from 16 wells, or boreholes, each 600 feet deep, that were drilled on an adjacent property. The LEED Gold-certified building is further cooled by a green roof and reflective roof coating. Other sustainable “perks” include a second floor patio covered by white pavers made of photocatalytic cement that reacts with sunlight to destroy air pollutants, and ten solar thermal rooftop panels that provide heat for domestic hot water. Kitchen appliances are Energy Star-certified. In the arts center, occupancy sensors turn the lights on and off.

Hairpin Lofts is not the only historic kid on the block. It is one of seven commercial buildings in the Milwaukee-Diversey-Kimball Landmark District, all known for their intricate ornamentation, and constructed after Chicago’s streetcar lines were extended north. Nor is it the only example of sustainability in the neighborhood. Across the street is a public gathering space that is part amphitheater, part innovative stormwater drainage system that irrigates native plants growing there.

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