Credit: Michael Glenwood aka Michael Gibbs

When Virgin Hotels North America announced this summer that its first project would be in Chicago, renovating the 27-story Old Dearborn Bank Building into a boutique hotel, the choice seemed inspired to thrill fans of the city’s highly regarded downtown collection of 19th- and 20th-century commercial buildings.

“It’s a chance to rebrand or reintroduce a building that a lot of people hadn’t noticed,” says Charlie Stetson, AIA, lead architect on the project from the firm Booth Hansen. “It’s really had background [status], but it deserves to be looked at again.”

Completed in 1928, the Old Dearborn Bank Building has lovely terra cotta details on its exterior (such as a squirrel hoarding nuts above the main entry—an impish reference to the original tenant), a very handsome main-floor staircase, and a wide, shallow floor plate that almost demands to be made into a hotel. And that squirrel over the door could take on new meaning after the building has been renovated for its new function: The developers will have saved both money and natural resources by preserving the structure rather than undertaking new construction.

Both kinds of efficiency are fueling an increased appreciation for preservation and renovation projects in Chicago, several local architects say, and the Windy City’s large inventory of admirable old buildings provides ample opportunity. “If we’re going to have any kind of rebirth in building here,” Stetson says, “adaptive reuse of our existing building stock is going to lead the way.”

Chicago is particularly well-positioned because it offers very appealing financial incentives for developers—including “Class L,” which reduces property tax assessment levels for a 12-year period if an owner spends at least half of the landmark building’s value on an approved renovation. “Everyone has to look for savings now,” says Gunny Harboe, FAIA, whose Harboe Architects has done some of Chicago’s most prominent renovations. “If tax incentives are there to help them get going, they’ll go where the incentives are.”

But Harboe notes that the money doesn’t pour out of spigots; it’s tightly controlled to ensure that Chicago’s architectural treasures are handled well. His firm’s lauded restoration of Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie & Scott Building (aka Sullivan Center) was helped along by money from a Tax Increment Financing District made available for restoring a landmark building exterior that was seen as providing a public benefit. It was a potential honeypot, but the money came with the stipulation that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks would retain a high level of authority over what could be done. The job included restoring Sullivan’s wonderfully ornamented cast iron storefront and reinstalling an impressive decorative cornice that had been removed long ago—a welcome flourish that, Harboe suggests, was possible only because of the interconnection of TIF funding with landmarks oversight.

Going forward, there are questions as to the commission’s continuing level of gusto for preservation. After 22 years as mayor, Richard M. Daley, a devotee of Chicago’s architectural heritage, retired last spring. His successor, former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, rejiggered the seats on the commission so that no architects other than a single landscape architect currently serve. While that’s not to say the panel will gut landmark protection, the city’s architects and preservationists wonder what it bodes for the future.

For at least one pair of Chicago-area homeowners, the choice to renovate an old building popped up only when their plans to tear the place down were blocked by local preservationists. In Glencoe, an affluent North Shore suburb, the mid-century Ancel House by architect Edward Dart, FAIA, appealed to buyers only for its large bluff-top lot overlooking Lake Michigan. Paying $5 million for the site in 2006, they planned to replace the low-slung house with a larger new home and sell off a piece of the lot as a site for another—until pushback from the community eventually forced them to reconsider.

That’s when they called in Becker Architects, which has a thick portfolio of traditional as well as modern renovations. Richard Becker, AIA, walked through the home with the couple and, as he recalls, “helped them appreciate Dart’s expanse of glass on the lake, and their thinking evolved.”

After devising a way to insert a new attached garage in a break in the front elevation and extend the horizontal roofline across an addition, Becker had both client and preservationists on board. A 2011 winner of a Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award, Ancel House meticulously preserves the character of the original, while adding new spaces for contemporary living.

In a newspaper article about the award, the homeowner might have been speaking for numerous other old-building owners who find preservation a judicious choice. “In hindsight, I definitely think we did the right thing,” Ellen Muslin told the Glencoe News. “Whatever the process was, it worked, and we gained an appreciation for what we had.”