Our series of articles profiling Chicago’s architecture firms continues today with a look at FitzGerald Associates. We recently sat down with company chairman Pat FitzGerald, president Michael De Rouin, and Richard Whitney to learn more about the firm, its vision, and some advice for NIMBYs dealing with developers.
Editor: We always start out these profiles with a little history. Tell us where your firm started.
Whitney: The firm dates back to 1919. It started as Rissman & Hirshfeld, and they were architects for a number of residential buildings. They were the architects of the Knickerbocker Hotel, and the Oscar Meyer residence in Lakeview. In Logan Square they did three commercial buildings at the Milwaukee, Diversey, and Kimball intersection.
De Rouin: If you’re familiar with the Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury book, our predecessor firm is mentioned quite a bit in there.
Whitney: There were some iterations of the partnership until the 1950’s. I think it was in ’55 when Martin Reinheimer joined the firm. Martin eventually took over the firm, and ran it pretty much by himself until about 1984-86. Pat [FitzGerald] joined in 1978; became a partner with Reinheimer in ’86, I believe. And then Martin retired in ’88, and it’s been FitzGerald Associates ever since.
Mike and I have both been at the firm for 25 years, and we both became partners in 2006.
Editor: Your location — in a timber loft in the West Loop — is unusual among Chicago architecture firms. You were one of the urban pioneers in this area, weren’t you?
Whitney: We moved here in 2000. It was a much more active meat and produce market then than it is now. It’s always interesting walking through the streets.
Editor: You put in an L stop, and the neighborhood changes.
De Rouin: Well, they ripped the one out at Halsted when they re-built the green line. That was before we got here. So we get here, and there’s no more L stop in the West Loop, the hottest growing neighborhood. And it took until about 2013 before this one [Morgan Station] opened up.
Editor: You do a lot of work in the neighborhood. You even feature your own building as one of your proudest achievements.
Whitney: It was Pat’s intention to own the building. It’s a family partnership that owns this building. There’s about eight or nine apartments, and about 12,000 square feet of commercial space.
Editor: You’ve done a lot of loft-style conversions, but in the last few years you’ve also done a number of higher profile projects. Arkadia stands out.
De Rouin: We’ve been doing a lot of mid-rise and high-rise buildings since about 2004. Yes, we have done a lot of adaptive re-use than a lot of other firms. But Arkadia is a recent high-rise. We also did at 8th and State, the two buildings there [One Place Condominiums & South Loop Shops]. One has the Xsport Fitness in it, and the other is a 30-story high-rise at the south end of the block at 9th. That came out of the ground right as the world was ending. The timing on that wasn’t so good, but we’ve got a number of 20-story building scattered about town. 1819 South Michigan is one. 212 Cullerton is another one. And 740 Fulton right up here.
Editor: You’re doing a lot of tall, glassy work, and still doing the adaptive re-use. Do the two styles translate? Is it hard to shift gears between the two? Do you use different teams?
De Rouin: The basic discipline translates, I think. People are always surprised that we do such a variety of things, but they’re all just problems to solve. And I think it helps that this is a firm where the principals have secure egos. I don’t think any of us sees ourselves as the type of person who has to put a personal stamp on a building. It doesn’t matter to me if someone says, “Oh, that’s a FitzGerald Building.” No, I want people to say, “That’s a really good response to that particular problem.” So in our minds, it’s not real important that they all look alike or they convey a certain brand, because they all fulfill very very different needs. And I think one reason we’ve been very successful with the adaptive re-use projects is because those projects really demand that you put your ego away and listen to the building. Because if you try to impose an idea on it that isn’t really there, you’re going to spend an awful lot of your client’s money trying to do something that may turn our less well than if you study the building and come up with a more sympathetic solution.
Editor: When you’re doing an adaptive re-use and you start taking out walls and adding glass, is there a point where you say, “Hold on. I’ve gone too far.”
FitzGerald: Yes. If it doesn’t contribute to the end result. When I was a very young architect, my then-boss, Marty Reinheimer, used to say the key to success in a building is to think of the end user. Because, chances are if you do a good job for the end user — the person who will live here, shop here, work here, whatever — you’ve probably done a good job for your client. Because people will recognize that. The building will be successful, and the client will make money.
Editor: You mentioned about the world going to hell in 2008. Some of the firms we’ve spoken with in the last few weeks say 2015 was their turnaround year. Is that the case with FitzGerald as well?
Whitney: I think late ’12 and 2013 were our turnaround years.
FitzGerald: – We ramped up very quickly after the recession because first, we work primarily for developers. They’re entrepreneurial people, so when the window cracks open, they’re the first to jump through. So we got a quick bump after the recession, which was great. We were able to add staff; highly-qualified people from offices that disappeared. People decamping from offices that did institutional work, because that was still flatlined. And we had kept all our most experienced people.
Editor: How is hiring these days? Are you seeing a shortage of the older, more experienced people who have gone out of the business?
FitzGerald: Absolutely. Although I’d say we’re about stocked. We went out and found those people right away after the recession because we knew they’d be unavailable later. So we have a core group here of about 16 people who are all very experienced folks. So, in terms of competency, we probably have about the most competent office since I’ve been the proprietor.
This last recession was my fifth. Certainly, it was longer and nastier than prior ones, but they’re all nasty. Real estate is a cyclical business, and this firm goes back to the 1900’s. So our predecessors managed to get through the Great Depression, so we have no right to go away over a mere five year dip!
Editor: When someone says “FitzGerald Associates,” what is your marquee building that you want them to think of?
FitzGerald: The next one. The last one is flawed, but the next one will be perfect. [laughs]
Editor: Is the one that you’re particularly proud of?
FitzGerald: It’s always the new ones that get attention. Of recent projects, things like the Madison, E2, Arkadia… those are all kind of the current thinking and recent demonstrations of what we’re capable of.
Some are quite small. We’ve been doing all these houses for CA Development. Paul’s been a client for probably 20 years, and he builds houses; that’s all he does. Individually they don’t make a huge impact, but when he goes into a neighborhood with 10 or 20 or 60 homes, he does have an impact.
De Rouin: There’s suburban work, too. We just finished Midtown Square in Glenview.
Editor: And you’ve been active in Evanston, as well.
FitzGerald: We’ve been acive in Evanston for a while, and we just got this one [Oak Park Station] approved in Oak Park, and should start breaking ground next month.
Editor: Do you find working in the suburbs a different experience than working in the city? Are people more resistant to your skyscraper ideas?
FitzGerald: We had no push-back on the high-rise on this. The biggest challenge here was accommodating parking and retail, and trying to make it all work with the program, and negotiating a new street with the Village.
Editor: I saw that — you’re moving a street and adding a street and changing the whole grid.
FitzGerald: The reality is that no deal is an easy deal anymore. When I started in this business as a kid I used to think that building the building was the hard part. I eventually learned that no, getting permission to build the building is the hard part. And today, even more so. Because our business is making change. And we’re living in an age where change is not necessarily welcome. Everybody grudgingly understand that it’s necessary, but not in my backyard. Or anywhere around here. Take it somewhere else.
But again, I think we’ve done a lot of entitlement work, and all of us have, and have presented to communities and worked with communities. And if people are receptive, you’d be amazed the amount of change they can get in a project, and negotiate in a project. I’ve had friends who have called and said, “Oh no, they’re going to build this thing near me.” Well, look, if you think you’re going to stop them, think again. This may be your best opportunity to get something good. And maybe you ought to negotiate with them, because now you have leverage. And most reasonable developers are willing to accommodate as much change as they can. And if this project is even remotely good, you can make it a lot better. But if you go to block it, suppose you succeed. It’s not going to sit there empty forever. What if the next guy comes in and wants to do something you like even less?
In the suburbs there’s still a mindset that they’d rather have nothing than something. While people in the city, generally, understand that the city is a dynamic place that grows and changes.
Editor: The West Loop is notorious for having the second-toughest NIMBY community in the city…
FitzGerald: But that’s very recent. We’ve been doing work here since before we moved here — since the late 90’s. And we’ve done 18 or 19 projects of substance.
It amuses me that at community meetings people are asked to give their address before they register their complaint, and some of these people who are complaining [don’t even live here.] “We don’t want any zoning changes in this neighborhood!” Well, excuse me, you live in…?
Editor: Do you find that people who know you’re based in the neighborhood give you an easier time?
FitzGerald: Maybe it gives us a little credibility. I think most of the projects that we’ve done here have been thoughtful and pretty well received. In other words, they tend to be quality buildings that address the street, address the neighborhood. When you build [in this neighborhood], let’s face it, it’s all infill. There’s not a lot of greenfield sites. So it needs to have a relationship with the buildings around it. It has to fit into an existing context, and if you think that through and do the best job you can, you ought to be able to explain that to the neighbors.
Editor: At the community meetings for One South Halsted, a number of people from the neighborhood said they wanted a landmark building. They wanted another Skybridge. They wanted something that wins awards. How do you then go back to the office and turn on the computer and say, “OK, let’s win an award?”
FitzGerald: To be frank, I don’t think we ever start out with the idea of winning an award. Now, we have won lots of awards. And I think the ones that I am most proud of are not the traditional AIA awards, but the ones like the CNU awards, like Glenview did and Oakwood Shores.
De Rouin: Congress for New Urbanism.
FitzGerald: Because their criteria are more about projects that relate to the context and relate to building a sense of place, as opposed to building an icon. I think AIA awards are great, but we never enter.
Editor: With the economy improving, are you looking at opening offices elsewhere?
De Rouin: We’re doing work out of the area, and out of the region. We’re doing work in the suburbs and Milwaukee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania… It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to, but if the opportunity is there…
Whitney: Never say “never.”
FitzGerald: Our bones are Chicago. Since 1919. We’ve been here, this firm has grown here. I think we would not be totally resistant to going someplace else, but I’ve also seen many firms that spread themselves out through offices and lose their coherence, or lose their identity.
We like our culture as a Chicago-based firm. Chicago is a great place to be an architect. If you’re an actor, go to L.A. If you’re a writer, you’d better go to New York. But if you’re an architect, this is a good place to be. It’s a place that manages to continually move the discussion and move the paradigm without being overly involved with trends.
If you want to see new and iconic, there’s Miami; and maybe some things happening in L.A., and New York. But I think what happens here relates much more to the rest of the country. I think those [cities] are aberrations.
But I think we have been able to move the needle. Take the E2 project in Evanston. Architecturally, is it a landmark? I’m not prepared to say. In terms of that kind of building in a suburban context, it is highly amenitized. I mean, the amenities there would stack up against anything in downtown Chicago, and go far beyond most; and to do that in a suburban context and have it be successful for our client and a place that people seem to love to live and a project that I think makes a real contribution to downtown Evanston by putting an end cap on the downtown district, those are the kinds of successes that we enjoy.
Editor: A lot of Chicago architecture seems to follow the same program, especially large building. Parking podium with retail, topped by a rectangular tower. Is that a function of the developer, or the city, or is that just the current “Chicago Style.”
FitzGerald: Yes, yes, and yes. And you can throw in economics.
De Rouin: We’ve got bad mud, zoning requirements…
FitzGerald: And going down is not really an option in Chicago, for parking. I mean it’s astronomically expensive. So, as long as you’re going to put cars in a building, which is still a requirement even though it’s reduced, then you’re stuck with how to reconcile these disparate parts. And with land costs limiting the size of most projects, you are invariably forced to stack the uses vertically. Some projects I think do that more successfully than others, but it is a building type that has been figured out here over the last decade or so. Some of the early efforts of trying to make those [parking] floors look like part of the building… “Oh, let’s make them look like windows!” Everybody knows it’s a garage.
Editor: You tried to mask your garage at Arkadia with the perforated screen. How did that work out for you?
FitzGerald: It was a novel attempt to use what had to be there to make something maybe a little unexpected. And it really started out because the Greektown S.S.A. had a lot of say about whether or not that project could be built, because they’re a very tight-knit group of restauranteurs. Some of the old guys have been there forever; they all know each other. And they first put it to us, “If we allow this project, what are you going to do to make it Greek?”
Editor: Besides the name.
FitzGerald: It had the name. And I remember asking, “What are you thinking?” And one guy was like, 12-foot-high neon letters on the side facing 94 saying “Welcome to Greektown.” I think the planning department is going to have some issue with that, and I don’t think we’re going to get away with putting Doric columns underneath this building, so let’s see what else we can come up with. So using the punched metal screens gave us the opportunity to put something there that would be better than a blank wall.
We didn’t want to do the back side of Skybridge. Something more entertaining than that was called for.
Editor: Since you’re virtually I-94-adjacent, what do you think of the recent ideas that have been floated about decking the highway over?
De Rouin: Decking over the expressways has been talked about so many times, between Oak Park and downtown. But nobody has ever figured out how to pay for it. And until they solve that problem, it’s just going to be an idea. Would it be nice to link the offices to the neighborhoods here? Sure. It would be great. They accomplished it in Boston, but how many hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars did they use to bury the expressway?
FitzGerald: If you’re asking if it’s a good idea, yeah, it’s a great idea. Taking a nuisance and turning it into an amenity I think is huge. But as Mike said, there’s the issue of having to pay for it, etc… But there are many less ambitious things that could be done. For example, making the bridges more passable [would be great]. If you try to walk across the Lake Street Bridge or the Madison Avenue bridge in January, you’ll find out that that’s a damn long walk. And just putting up windscreens and buffers and potentially partially roofing it might be a great first step, and would probably be a lot less costly.
But everyone’s always looking for the grand gesture and making the big plan and sometimes I think we overlook more incremental things that would be huge improvements just because they aren’t considered bold enough and they don’t get press.