Divide and Conquer: Slicing Up Barneys to Make Oak Street Even More Boring

It was just over a decade ago that luxury retailer Barneys New York opened its new Chicago flagship store at 15 East Oak Street. The international retail press fawned. Customers oohed and aahed. And as the city coped with what we thought was the worst recession in our lifetimes, this building was seen as a sign of confidence in Chicago’s retail market, and that the Windy City was more than the capitol of just another “hay state.”

Today, all that’s changed. Barneys is bankrupt. The Oak Street stores that remain open a few hours a day hide behind plywood. And the customers just don’t come anymore.

Against this background, we can tell you that the Chicago Department of Planning and Development has approved a plan to divide and conquer the former Barneys flagship store.

25 East oak Street when it was still Barneys New York (File)
25 East oak Street when it was still Barneys New York (File)

What used to be a single expanse of retail space gracefully curving around the confluence of East Oak and North Rush Streets will become just another 90° corner. The building’s open ground floor gallery which delighted loyal customers who were used to the claustrophobic Barneys across the street at 25 East Oak will be hacked into four individual stores, plus a lobby for the upper floors.

Rendering of the altered 25 East Oak Street.
Rendering of the altered 25 East Oak Street.

This means that Gensler’s building-height glass barrel, which was the signature of the structure, will be hidden behind two levels of “stone cladding.” In addition — or subtraction — the Prairie-style metal panels that helped keep this corner of Chicago looking like a corner of Chicago are going away.

That six-story tall glass feature was welcomed by neighbors who worried that a new department store on the corner would darken the area even more than it already had been in recent years by a bumper crop of skyscrapers that sprouted in the Gold Coast. Some of that light will be preserved since the corner addition will only be two stories tall. That’s fine if you’re a bird, but constricting this busy intersection will fundamentally change the feel of this corner of the city.

Diagram of the altered 25 East Oak Street.
Diagram of the altered 25 East Oak Street.

What does the owner of the building gain from OKW’s alteration of Gensler’s design? 358 square feet of space. 270 on the first floor, and 88 on the second.

And it’s that second floor and above that’s the wildcard. Plans filed with the city don’t show what is going to happen there. But OKW’s renderings show the second floor as retail space, and the floors above it lined with… wait for it… treadmills.

The long, elegant, illuminated staircases on which descending became a rite of passage for the daughters of Chicago’s ladies who lunch will be cut out, decked over, and replaced by chavs sweating to their AirPods.

Location: 25 East Oak Street, Gold Coast

Author: Editor

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

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