All About the New Skyscraper at 720 North LaSalle


Rendering of 720 North LaSalle, courtesy of bKL Architecture

Rendering of 720 North LaSalle, courtesy of bKL Architecture

Last week, we were the first to tell you that the Chicago Plan Commission approved the construction of a new residential tower at 720 North LaSalle Street, replacing downtown Chicago's venerable, googie-riffic Howard Johnson's motel.

When the paperwork was originally filed with the city back in April, it was a 38-story tower.  What was approved last week was a slightly smaller building - 35 floors, and 382 feet tall.  The developer made the change because he wanted each floor to be a little larger, and in the complex algebra of Chicago zoning, that meant lopping off three floors from the top.

The architecture firm behind what we call the "HoJo Tower" is friends-of-the-blog, bKL Architects.   Principal Thomas Kerwin had to jet off to China right after the Plan Commission meeting, but was nice enough to answer our questions about the new building from Hong Kong.


Q Your last residential tower was the very very glassy 200 North Michigan in The Loop. This one is far less sleek and business-like. Did you have the same team working on it?

Thomas Kerwin in the bKL offices at Aqua

Thomas Kerwin in the bKL offices at Aqua

A Yes we have a core group of designers that work on all of our projects at one point or another. We are rather fluid in our process and everyone is encouraged and welcome to weigh in with thoughts or ideas.

Q The final design is more traditionally residential, compared with 200 North Michigan which looks a lot like an office building. Is this a function of the more residential nature of the neighborhood, or simply in keeping with the wishes of the developer?

A Each building responds to its context in different ways. The 200 site sits on a stretch of Michigan Ave that is comprised of dark buildings, the beautiful but dark masonry of Carbide and Carbon and the black metal of Illinois Center. We felt that a lighter and glass exterior would be a nice contrast in that context. 720 LaSalle has its own response to its context.

Q The building appears to be clad in masonry. Are these real bricks, or pre-cast concrete stand-ins? Was the brick motif a nod to the neighborhood’s brick warehouse past?

A 720 is clad in brick and yes it was a response to the primarily masonry context of river north. We will be using standard brick most likely laid up traditionally although we are still refining the details with masonry subcontractors.

Drawing of the 720 North LaSalle pocket park

Drawing of the 720 North LaSalle pocket park, courtesy of bKL Architecture

Q It seems like a lot of people are excited about the pocket park next to the building. How did the park shape what we see today? Is it practical to have a park so close to a major source of shadow?

A Alderman Reilly suggested to our client that green space would be welcome on this site. Increased density is great for our city but greenspace and parks provide welcome relief. We are working with Kettlecamp & Kettlecamp on the park design. All agreed that the Wells street portion of the site was the most logical place for the park. Plants that thrive in sun and shade are planned and also trees that are visually interesting in summer and winter are being specified. Our clients are hoping to attract a cafe in the building facing the park as an amenity and to activate the park along Wells.

Reilly and his staff place great emphasis on the pedestrian experience. We embrace it. Greenspace, active uses at street level, high quality materials ...... these buildings are here for a long time.

Rendering of 720 North LaSalle, courtesy of bKL Architecture

Rendering of 720 North LaSalle, courtesy of bKL Architecture

Q Your building will replace a Howard Johnson’s motel, which is one of the few brands that evokes a particular type of architecture. Was there any attempt made to incorporate some of the 1950’s “googie” Howard Johnson-ness into the new tower?

A No

Q The balconies in 720 North LaSalle are recessed; it’s something we’ve seen a lot in Chicago residential buildings. Why is this suddenly a trend, and what are its advantages?

A The balconies are more usable if they are protected from the elements partially. Also if balconies are a requirement, we try to integrate them into the exterior expression rather than having them "tacked" on to the skin.

Q In the latest renderings, the two central bays of balconies appear to have large orange panes of glass on random floors. Is that correct? If so, why?

A Variety in unit types is important to the clients and this facade is west facing. They provide a bit more shading in the summer months. They also provide for some texture on that primary facade.

Q Hubbard Place also chose orange for its accents. Is there trend data showing this is a good color, or did it just feel right to the design team?

A We are still refining the color choices. We did choose a lighter brick for the main tower to contrast with the glass and darker base.

Q The exterior grid of the building doesn’t seem to have vertical elements at the corners. Are the corners really glass-to-glass, or are the pillars just hidden behind the panes?

720 North LaSalle rendering

720 North LaSalle pocket park rendering courtesy of bKL Architecture

A The corners are glass and the columns are placed behind the skin.

Q As the tower joins the base, the grid changes in both color, and some of the vertical elements disappear. Tell me about this.

A We are using a darker brick at the base to ground the building. The grid does change in certain areas based on the use behind and also to add interest to the facade. We are using masonry which is a material that has been an integral part of Chicago and its neighborhoods for many decades. We want to use it a modern way and maybe not adhere to tradition so rigidly.

Q A good portion of one side of the building faces directly into another building. Are there windows on these floors? Is this going to be a situation where someone’s apartment looks into a brick wall like on a sit-com? Could you have mitigated this by swapping the location of the tower and the pool?

A A lot of discussion went into the tower placement. I am not sure we have the party wall conditions that you mention. We placed the tower to maximize views out of the building and also the ground floor was a major consideration. Lobbies, retail, access to loading and parking, active uses along the park all factored into its placement.


Thanks to Mr. Kerwin for taking time out from bird's nest soup and the Peak Tram to answer these questions for us.


Location: 720 North LaSalle Street, River North


Author: Editor

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

Share This Post On