The coffee shop from the exterior.

photo by: Tom Harris Architectural Photography

November 6, 2017

Balancing the OId and the New at Intelligentsia's Monadnock Location

  • By: Meghan White

In a country where the average adult drinks three cups of coffee a day, Americans justifiably have high standards when it comes to the perfect spot to get their caffeine fix. From the ubiquitous Starbucks and its recognizable green logo and clever (though sometimes odd) specialized coffee drinks to local joints that offer the classics and a familiar atmosphere, coffee shops offer something for everybody. If you’re in Chicago, you might want to check out the newly renovated Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea within the historic Monadnock Building and see how many boxes it checks off on your list.

The Monadnock Building was designed by the prestigious architecture firm Burnham and Root and is known as one of Chicago's most iconic buildings. The 16-story brick structure, with narrow windows and six-foot-thick load-bearing walls, was the largest office building in the world when it was completed in 1893. Back then, it was technically a skyscraper, although today that hardly applies.

It’s a relatively plain building from the exterior, which first drew criticism from contemporaries. The dark brown facade is distinguished primarily by columns of bay windows and a gentle swoop directly above the ground floor store fronts. Still, the Monadnock (which houses the National Trust’s Chicago field office), is a building celebrated as an excellent example of late-19th-century commercial architecture.

Intelligentsia, a coffee-roasting company that practices direct trade and uses single-origin coffee, first moved into the ground floor in 2003. Thirteen years later it underwent a renovation to refresh the cafe so that it is reflective of today's coffee culture, providing an inviting atmosphere and an improved customer experience—all while respecting the cafe's historic location. It wrapped up in April of 2017.

“Each Intelligentsia location tries to respond to the neighborhood and location that it’s in,” explains Calli Verkamp, a project architect with Wheeler Kearns Architects, who led the renovation with colleague Daniel Wicke. “Functionality was important to the original design of the Monadnock Building, and this concept carried over into the design.”

The Monadnock storefront in 2015, before the renovation.

photo by: Kevin Zolkiewicz/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0

The Intelligentsia storefront in 2015.

The architects focused on examining the building’s design and materials for inspiration in Intelligentsia's storefront cafe. The center lobby on the first floor, for example, has aluminum colored materials, textured glass, and marble. The original hardware on all of the doors in the Monadnock (exterior and interior) are bronze. The architects drew from these colors and materials to create a seamless transition into the coffee bar space. A thin bronze sheet clads the service bar in the front of the cafe. The back wall is decorated with a stainless-steel splash and a textured glass mirror. A new absorbative stretch fabric on the ceiling improves acoustics. There was a lot of exposed trim along the walls that made the space feel small, so crews painted the walls gray along the base and white up above.

Several historic details in the cafe were left alone, including marble floors, marble baseboards, stained window frames, and light fixtures that match the lighting in the rest of the building. But with improved acoustics, service bars that are more inviting to the customer, and a new paint scheme, Verkamp says that the space now feels clean and efficient while staying true to the cafe's historic character.

“You know when you are here that you’re in the Monadnock Building,” says Verkamp.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

Join us for PastForward Online 2021, the historic preservation event of the year, November 2-5, 2021.

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