The Post Office is part of the Chicago Federal Center designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The building was completed in 1973. It is a single-story building that rises 27 feet above grade with two levels below ground. The structural system is arranged on a grid of 28 square feet with a vertical floor to ceiling height of 24 feet. The exterior flat black graphite painted steel structure with floor to ceiling windows allows the outside in, with views of the surrounding plaza. The granite pavement on the exterior, continues through to the interior, furthering the open effect of the design. The postal operations and services are enclosed within a series of walnut veneered panels while the public lobby extends around the perimeter of the building. The walnut veneered panels create a warm, traditional contrast with the juxtaposition of the sleek glass, granite and steel exterior. This type of veneered paneling is found in many other mid-century lobbies as well as other Mies’ buildings. The paneled walls extend beyond the corners to create the effect of wall planes sliding past one another, which is also typical in other works by Mies. The post office boxes are located on the west end of the building. These are set behind a wall and feature walnut panels above and Rockville granite surrounding the aluminum framed boxes. The iconic red 53 foot tall stabile, Flamingo, by Alexander Calder, is installed in the Federal Plaza next to the building.
Bernacki & Associates Inc. was first selected to provide its expertise to assess and confirm the condition, as well as the methods and materials originally used in the fabrication and installation of panels. Based on the results they then and established a treatment guideline. The panels were originally fabricated by U.S. Plywood Corporation as Weldwood Architectural Grade Paneling. Each panel was labeled on the reverse side by the manufacturer.
The veneered walls suffered from years of bustling commercial use, along with exposure to water, humidity, and contact with postal equipment. The panels exhibited varying degrees of damage. Some were warped and out of alignment, and in some cases, where the more severe damage prevailed, the panels had large areas of missing veneer. The condition of the panels called for various solutions that would address the unique condition of each piece, while ensuring an overall homogeneous result for the collection as a whole. All of the panels had to be de-installed, treated, reinstalled and reset to proper alignment. Four panels were specifically chosen and used as the overall reference for their varying degrees of deterioration: color faded from exposure to ultraviolet light, veneer delamination, deep scratching and gouging to veneer and substrate, water staining, nail holes, and the stability of the veneer which had potentially been compromised during previous attempts to repair.
The goal of the treatment was to retain as much of the existing material as possible; repair and consolidate the compromised surface. Only as a last option was material replaced and carefully integrated.
The collection of approximately 340 3’-5” by 7’-10” panels were carefully removed and transferred to Bernacki & Associates, Inc. facility for repairs. The removal, packing, and transportation of the panels was not an easy task, as their size, condition and the volume required special attention and handling, before the treatment could begin. A detailed identification and tracking system was created to ensure that all the panels and elements could be reinstalled in the same location from which they were removed.
Upon removal of the panels, the following treatment was performed:
The compromised finish was removed.
The water and embedded grime stains were removed.
The depth of the scratches was reduced through localized steaming.
Deep gouges were infilled and levelled.
Areas of veneer loss and severe damage were infilled with new veneer to integrate the original veneer in color and grain patterns, connecting to the original sections with minimum alterations.
The panels were then finished to evenly match in color depth, darkness and sheen.
It was determined that it would be invasive to remove select components of the paneling. The veneer within the reveals, trims, and corners were treated on-site. Upon completion of the treatment of each phase, the panels were carefully documented, packed, and reinstalled. Great attention was given to the placement, alignment and orientation. The work was completed without interruption to the operations of the Post Office. It was performed overnight and required the use of a fume extraction system to eliminate the odors from chemicals used.
To help deter further damage to the paneled areas that were at greatest risk of contact with postal carts, a stainless steel railing and corner guard system was designed and installed.
The project allowed for the exciting discovery of two original wall clocks that were previously obscured by a more recent clock. The existing clock numbers were cleaned and reinstalled, and new replica faceplates and hands were created and installed.
Through attention to detail, commitment to craftsmanship and efforts to ensure the longevity and functionality of the paneled interior, the Loop Post Office can be used and aesthetically appreciated for future generations.
In studio during treatment
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