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Temple of Domesticity

The evolution of Chicago's Medinah Temple into one of Bloomingdale's largest standalone Home + Furnishings stores is a retailing success story that has proved a winning combination for Chicago — and chain's parent, Federated Department Stores Inc. Federated raised its civic standing by saving the 1912 Moorish-style building from demolition and creating a destination shopping location. The building, located in trendy and growing River North, just east of tony Michigan Avenue, was formerly home to the Shriners organization, which held meetings and hosted circuses and other events there in its heydey

The renovation posed a formidable shopping list of design challenges: Retaining the building's unique exterior features, while gutting much of the interior and creating a Bloomingdale's store template. The mission was to ensure retail-friendly circulation flow, street-level merchandise visibility, and establish a Bloomingdale's brand identity through graphics and signage.

Federated began by hiring local firms that had done similar work and were familiar with the landmarks and city approvals process. Daniel P. Coffey & Associates was named architect of record and W.E. O'Neil Construction Co. was brought on board as general contractor. “The key for a good project is a team that works together,” says Bob Kapellas, operating vice president of construction for Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores.

The new design called for demolishing the building's interior, and inserting a soaring new multi-story atrium, surrounded by open display space, capped by the building's distinctive interior coffered plaster dome restored within the network of ornate ceiling beams and coves. Coffey preserved the proscenium of the former auditorium, and the elegant stained glass windows to the satisfaction of city landmark officials.

“This vertical space draws you up to the top of the atrium,” says Coffey. “Inserting a new four-story building, with all new building systems within existing brick walls, while maintaining the old dome and plasterwork, was not a simple task.”

Demolition was the first major hurdle. The entire building was stripped down to the bearing walls and roof, and floors were excavated down to the foundations. The contractor braced the exterior walls with a web of temporary steel supports, while removing the interior (including the auditorium's sloped slab, seating, and raised stage) before installing new floors, and ensuring the building would not collapse. The old first floor was six feet above street level, with the entrance reached by stairs. Dropping the first floor to grade, for a customer-friendly environment, meant excavating the basement four feet to accommodate the new ground floor level.

Excavation posed further challenges. Enabling a crane to reach the center of the space for steel erection necessitated removal of the front entrance. “Knowing how many people love this building, we took great care to prevent damage to the ornate 70-foot structure and roofing materials,” says Michael Faron, W. E.O'Neil president.

As part of an agreement with the Landmarks Commission, the old theater proscenium had to be preserved as a significant architectural element along with the entire third-floor ceiling, with its ornate plaster domes and coffers. The proscenium now serves as a dramatic backdrop to the atrium escalators.

To enhance visibility into the store, the first floor windows were lowered three feet to street level, and punched out 18 inches for merchandise displays and vistas, while retaining the terra cotta framing and stone trim. Coffey also designed the new streetfront awnings, and enhanced the entrance with a pressed metal and glass marquee, reminiscent of the original historic pressed metal fascia.

The dramatic exterior lighting makes the masonry details, entrances, domes and storefronts glow, as the restored stained glass and sensitively rendered signage bring new life to a once dark and dormant urban dowager. The new entry marquee and graphics signal the new retail use. As homage to the building's past, Coffey carefully replicated and replaced the Temple's two exterior copper-clad onion domes that had been removed 15 years earlier, thus restoring recognizable neighborhood icons to their resplendent glory.

“People who knew the old building get emotional thinking about memories of a space where they once attended graduations and circus performances,” says Jack Hruska, Bloomingdale's senior vice president for store design and visual merchandising. “Now, there is an even greater thrill of being close to the architectural details once only glimpsed from the ground floor: the grand dome, proscenium, and stained glass windows.”

Overall, this project cost more than the usual Federated model. The money spent is not obvious, which retailers generally don't like. However, $14 million in city and state funding contributed to the good will and civic pride generated by Bloomingdale's for their urban investment. Chicago city authorities and preservationists, renowned for maintaining rigorous standards, were so pleased about saving a beloved landmark, they permitted signage, awnings and a new marquee, an exceptional vote of confidence for Bloomingdale's and Coffey's design.

The project has garnered many awards, accruing kudos and credit to Bloomingdale's, including the Chicago Landmark Award for excellence, American Institute of Architects Chicago honors and Best of 2003 by Preservation Online.

That's impressive for a building that was slated for demolition and listed as “a most endangered landmark” by the World Monuments Fund. If it hadn't been renovated, the site would have been home to a residential high rise. That has been the fate of many downtown buildings that failed to find saviors. Woodward & Lothrop's original store in Washington D.C., for example, became condos.

As a spin-off benefit of Coffey's innovative renovation, Bloomingdale's acquired a unique Chicago civic identity. By supporting a high profile community revitalization project, the national store's brand name became identified with vibrant local activities, providing an object lesson in historic preservation and corporate values. Ultimately, Coffey says, Medinah's message is, “good design is good business.”



Rescue the Medinah Temple, an important Chicago landmark, from demolition; restore the Temple's Moorish details to their original splendor and create an interior core that fits Bloomingdale's store template.


Gut the interior and build a four-story store with a central atrium, lower the entrance and windows to provide street-level merchandise visibility, enhance the lighting and signage — while maintaining the classic elements of the original building.


Innovative design attracted public-private partnerships that saved the building. Federated and Bloomingdale's leveraged this success story to create good will within the community and linked their brand names to Chicago's civic identity.


Growing River North, a former retail backwater, is now a popular furniture and decorator district. The area projects 18,000 residents, up from 5,000 a decade earlier. According to the 2000 census, Chicago's population grew 4 percent since the 1990s, to 2.9 million. About 240,000 people with an average household income of $52,000 live within a three-mile radius of downtown.

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