Gensler’s Ghost Building on Michigan Avenue

People walking along Michigan Avenue will soon be able to see an image from the past — quite literally — thanks to a new project by Gensler for Columbia College.

The building in question is 618 South Michigan Avenue, wedged between the Columbia College South Building (624 South Michigan Avenue) and the shiny new Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies (610 South Michigan Avenue).

Historic photo of 618 South Michigan Avenue

618 South Michigan Avenue (Third building from the left) in the early 1900’s

The building started out life in the early part of the last century as a nice office building.  You can see it in this photo taken shortly after its completion, two doors down from the Blackstone Hotel.  Like others of its time, it had an artistically-adorned parapet and other decorative flourishes that helped it fit in with its peers along the Michigan Avenue streetwall.

That ended in 1949, when IBM bought the building, and tore off the facade.  Remember this was the beginning of the computer age, and IBM couldn’t very well have an antiquated adding machine-era face on its Chicago corporate identity.

So the building was “updated” to the height of 1950’s aesthetics.  Metal spandrels in a grid, with alternating rows of painted panels and dark glass windows.  The building looks like a giant computer punch card.

60 years later, IBM is long gone, and its replacement facade has reached the end of its useful life.  It is not energy-efficient, it leaks, and put bluntly, does not work with the Michigan Avenue style (not that it ever did in the past, either).

So now the building is owned by Columbia College, which wants to turn it into another building in its ever-expanding Loop campus.  To bring the building up to modern standards, it hired Gensler.

618 South Michigan Avenue can be seen on the left side of this picture, next to the new Spertus Institute.

Gensler’s big problem is that the building to the right of the 618 Building is the new Spertus Institute — a glassy fantasyland of angles and modernity.

The building to the left of 618 is  Columbia College’s South Building, a 14-story 1908 building by Christian Eckstrom, that looks every bit the opposite of the Spertus building.  You may remember it as the Torco Building because of the historic Torco Oil Company logo that was at the top of it until the early 2000’s (and before that, a Shell Oil logo).

So, how does one bridge the physical and historical gap between these two styles?  In Gensler’s case, it’s using modern materials to bring a piece of the past back to life.

The facade of 618 South Michigan, except for the ground floor, will be removed and replaced with a flat expanse of four-layer glass.  This will help it blend with the extravagant paperweight next door.  Printed on the glass will be the image of the building’s old 1900’s-era facade.  From a distance, say — across the street, you will be able to see the old building that IBM ruined, seemingly etched in a ghost-like figure in glass.

Of course, it’s not a literal etching.  It’s a type of ceramic that adheres to one layer of the glass.  In order to let light in, and allow people to see out, the image isn’t solid, it’s made up of millions of tiny bird-shaped figures.

If you’ve ever been inside the Spertus Institute looking out over grant park, you’ve seen something similar in action.  That building has a layer of dots on its glass that give it a texture, and also help regulate light and temperature.  At Spertus, the dots are fairly uniform.  At 618, the birds will be of various sizes and spacings, similar to what you see if you’ve ever taken a magnifying glass to a magazine page.

The glass is being done by Viracon* up in Minnesota.  Viracon did something similar with the glass on the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois tower a few blocks away at 300 East Randolph Street.

So, why birds, and not rocks, computers, or even Columbia College logos?  In part, because the intent of the ghost image (called a “frit”) is to keep birds from crashing into the special ultra-clear glass being used, and also as a nod to all of those birds traveling through Grant Park across the street on their annual migrations.

* In the interest of full disclosure, Artefaqs Corporation did some building photography work for Viracon a few years back.  Architecture photography is our main line of business around here.  If you have anything from a lobby to a factory to a skyscraper that needs professional photography, give us a jingle.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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