Adaptive reuse can be a strong tool for both developers and communities looking to redesign cities while paying homage to their past. Chicago, in particular, is no stranger to reinventing itself, and a recent study from RentCafe put it at the top of the list of U.S. cities with the most apartment conversions. Specifically, the study found that, since the 1950s, nearly 2,000 old buildings have been transformed into apartment complexes in the U.S. — an all-time high. Of these, around 800 were repurposed in the last decade alone with efficiency and sustainability in mind.
Returning old buildings to their former glory while giving them a new meaning is no easy feat. Nevertheless, with 91 conversion projects, Chicago boasts the highest number of adaptive reuse apartment buildings — 81% of which are aimed at renters on a budget. What’s more, its total number of converted apartments follows only New York City (14,167). To find out more about how Chicago breathes new life into its old buildings, we dug into Yardi Matrix data.
Steady rise in Chicago conversions creates more than 14,000 new apartments
Today, Chicago boasts the most converted old buildings in the country (91) and the second-most apartments created through adaptive reuse (14,167). As residential repurposing steadily began to rise, Chicago’s first conversion spike occurred in the 1980s. Back then, 12 buildings transitioned into apartment complexes, including Sheridan Plaza, a former hotel that was the first high-rise built in uptown.
Following the national trend, Chicago’s all-time high in apartment conversions occurred in the 2010s. In fact, a total of 39 old buildings were repurposed last decade — just in time to match the growing interest in unique, vintage apartments. One of these was the former Shoreland Hotel, a roaring ’20s staple that used to throw banquets for Amelia Earhart and host guests such as Elvis.
Courtesy of Bush Temple
Chicago’s most recent apartment conversion projects
Given its colorful past, Chicago has its pick of 1920s buildings to repurpose. But, it also has its share of turn-of-the-century architectural staples — like 1902’s The Bush Temple, which still displays one of the pianos it used to make, or the former Graeme Stewart Elementary School from 1905. These buildings aren’t just some of Chicago’s oldest buildings. They also represent some of the most recent conversions in town. Check out Chicago’s latest conversion projects below:
Top 10 Most Recent Apartment Conversions in Chicago
|The Draper||2020||1962||Office Building||342|
|The Field's Lofts||2019||1942||Warehouse||123|
|820 South Michigan||2019||1971||Office Building||150|
|330 South Wells||2019||1927||Factory||132|
|21st Street Lofts||2018||1908||Office Building||139|
|Stewart School Lofts||2018||1905||School||64|
|Lofts on Arthington||2017||1916||Office Building||181|
81% of the repurposed Chicago buildings aimed at renters on a budget
Across the U.S., a large share of adaptive reuse projects is aimed at lower- and middle-income renters — 65%. In this area, Chicago holds its own with 68 repurposed buildings oriented toward those looking for affordable rentals. That’s a cool 81% of Windy City residential conversions that are on the affordable side, 57% of which are accessible to low-income renters. Among them are historical gems like The Carolan — a former resort hotel built in 1923 — and Park View, one of the earliest hotel-to-apartments conversions in the city.
Courtesy of Park View Apartments
Chicago’s most popular conversions: vintage hotels, office buildings & factories
Chicago school architecture is world famous and, to this day, the city has some of the most iconic early 20th-century structures that are ideal for restoring to their former glory through adaptive reuse. Most of the old buildings that have been repurposed here over the years were former hotels like The Belmont by Reside or The Seneca. In fact, since the 1950s, 46 hotels have been given a second chance — most of which were originally built in the eventful ’20s and ‘30s.
Meanwhile, old office buildings and vintage factories are neck and neck as far as the number of conversions goes, with 11 and 10, respectively. This includes the former J.P Smith Shoe factory — which now goes by the name of River West Lofts — and the Randolph Tower, one of the most beautiful Gothic Revival structures in Chicago that was previously a mix of office and retail space.
Check out Chicago’s converted apartment buildings and what they used to be in a previous life:
Chicago’s oldest buildings to be transformed into apartment communities
And yet, despite their popularity, vintage hotels do not make the list of oldest structures to be made into residential apartments in Chicago. Rather, 1800s office spaces like Library Lofts and the Fisher Building right in the heart of downtown, as well as 1900s warehouses like The Regal and The Otis are included among Chicago’s 10 oldest converted buildings:
Top 10 Oldest Buildings Converted in Chicago
|Library Lofts||1883||2016||Office Building||106|
|Lake Street Lofts||1886||1999||Factory||92|
|Fisher Building City||1896||2000||Office Building||184|
|Stewart School Lofts||1905||2018||School||64|
|The Lofts at River East||1905||2016||Transport||285|
The most unusual apartment conversion projects in Chicago
Between historic hotels and vintage factories, some residential conversion projects in Chicago tackled more unusual buildings. Like today’s North Park Village — which used to be a sanatorium dating back to the 1910s — or buildings with fascinating former residents, like FDR’s uncle who used to live in what’s now called Reside on Wellington.
Courtesy of Lofts at River East
Another example is the lakeside tower that used to house the Lakeshore Athletic Club and hosted trials for the 1928 Olympic Games. Now, it goes by the name 850 Lake Shore Drive, and just last decade it replaced its ballrooms and reading room with beautiful rental units. Lofts at River East is another peculiar adaptation. This community is situated in the trendy River North neighborhood and right next to waterfront properties with high-demand Chicago office space. Interestingly, Lofts at River East used to be a shipping dock, which explains the industrial elements that the developers chose to keep when renovating.
Adaptive reuse continues to reinforce its position in urban remodeling. As such, there are still buildings with residential potential and striking architecture just waiting to be resurrected. Good thing Chicago remains a town that embraces revitalization.
RentCafe is a nationwide apartment search website that enables renters to easily find apartments and houses for rent throughout the United States. Apartment data was provided by our sister company, Yardi Matrix, a business development and asset management tool for brokers, sponsors, banks and equity sources underwriting investments in the multifamily, office, industrial and self-storage sectors.
Adaptive reuse refers to reusing an existing building for a purpose other than what it was originally intended for. The study is exclusively based on apartment data related to buildings containing 50 or more units. For the purpose of this study, certain building subcategories have been grouped into a general category that encompasses them. For example, manufacturing units, mills, or breweries fall under the Factory category.
Featured image courtesy of MDA City Club Apartments. All building photos used with expressed permission from the respective property management. RentCafe does not grant the right for property image use.
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