▶ West Loop Model Makers Bring Small Scale To Big Developments [Video]

Columbian Model staffers (from left) Holly Michel, Catherine Tinker, Bill Bauman and John Schnell.

A few minutes after I entered Columbian Model & Exhibit Works (1528 West Adams Street), I expected to see Lilliputians scurrying around. The exhibit and architectural model company operates out of a sprawling second-floor West Loop warehouse and is chock-full of scale-model replicas of buildings you see all around town.

Except for those that never made it past the design stage. But that’s the whole idea of models — a real estate developer and architect have a tangible three-dimensional prototype of the final structure to show future tenants exactly what their new home will look and feel like, albeit on a very small scale.

Catherine Tinker, president of Columbian, gave me a guided tour of the 6,000-square foot facility. She showed me a just-completed model of a retirement community (a growth industry for builders and model-makers) that she and her staff were preparing to transport to the east coast.

The tiny bushes, trees and shrubs around the model gave it a lifelike feel. Which is exactly the idea. The financiers and tenants of a proposed facility often have difficulty picturing the final building from a schematic drawing. A model is an entirely different animal.

More than 1,000 hours of work from the Columbian staff went into the small retirement community complex. It sprawled over a big chunk of floor space. Tinker and her team loaded the model into a truck early this week and took it on the road for delivery to the client.

Tinker is clearly proud of her staff and the presentation models they create.

“We produce a physical, tangible product that represents our efforts,” she said. “And, it adds credibility to a proposal.

“The City of Chicago model we constructed (currently on display at the Santa Fe Building at 224 S. Michigan Avenue) has been seen by close to a million people over the past three years.”

When Columbian gets a new assignment, Tinker and her team begin working with the architect and developer, using a traditional drawing as a starting point. Twenty years ago when Columbian started in business, it wasn’t unusual for the model makers to fabricate their product by hand using hand tools. Now, much of the work is done with 3D printers, laser-cutting devices and other mechanization.

Throughout the facility you can see the results of their work. Illuminated buildings—from single-story units to high rises—are on shelves, platforms, and sitting on the floor. I did a double-take when I passed a familiar-looking structure. It was an incredibly-small, but also incredibly-detailed version of the 1000 West Adams apartment building I walk by every day.

It was a perfect replica. For Columbian Model & Exhibit Works, that’s exactly the point.

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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