How the Kimpton Gray Hotel Saved an Architectural Icon

The Chicago property inhabits one of the world's first skyscrapers, and showcases its history for groups

Gray stairway stock

The history of American architecture can be experienced with a stroll through Chicago. But that history is vulnerable to commercial needs and even a structure with an important legacy can come under the threat of developers. That was the case of the New York Life Building -- one of the world's first skyscrapers, which was threatened with development that would have negatively impacted its original design. Fortunately, this story had a happy ending.

Chicago is where the skyscraper was invented. Architect William Le Baron Jenney built the first fully metal-framed building -- the 10-story Home Insurance Building, on LaSalle Street in the city's Loop area, which remains its banking and legal hub -- in 1885. In doing so, he transformed urban architecture as we know it. He created a number of other skyscrapers in the area, expanding on his innovations, and three of his original works remain clustered together.

"Where else in the world would you find three buildings in a row all by the father of the skyscraper?" asks Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

But about a decade ago, the New York Life Building, which Miller calls "the most exceptional" of the three Jenney structures in the area, was targeted for development that would damage the New York Life Building itself. When the recession hit, the sale collapsed and a new buyer, more interested in preserving the original building, eyed the project: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.

"The bones were beautiful," says Nabil Moubayed, director of operations for Kimpton Hotels Midwest and general manager of Kimpton Gray Hotel, the property that would take over the New York Life Building. Kimpton bought the property, and, consulting with Preservation Chicago, took pains to maintain the building's integrity.

The Kimpton team refurbished the windows. They preserved the bronze doors with fleur de lis patterns and vintage elevator signs. They cleaned the Georgia gray marble (dating to 1894) that gave the hotel its name and sourced the original marble for those areas that had to be replaced. They kept the hallways the original "very generous size," as Moubayed puts it.

It got trickier when creating meeting and event space, as well as the hotel's 4,000-square-foot rooftop restaurant, Boleo, which, in addition to a Latin-infused menu, features a retractable roof, allowing for open-air events when weather permits. "We cut out a hole, basically," says Moubayed.

To create the 2,798-square-foot Adler Ballroom on the 15th floor, the team removed nine columns and reinforced the roof in other ways. It now anchors the hotel's two floors of meeting space, which also includes a 2,255-square-foot foyer, 2,094-square-foot ballroom on the floor below, and a number of boardrooms and other spaces. On the second floor, the 1,066-square-foot Robie Room includes a pool table, soft seating, and TVs.

Kimpton worked with interior designer Beleco, referencing the Gray's history, with materials that brought to mind bespoke men's suits -- tweed, herringbone, wool. The hotel's artisinal-cocktail bar, Vol. 39, evokes the feel of an elegant law library, with encyclopedias (discovered during renovations) lining the walls. The final result, the 293-room Kimpton Gray Hotel, which opened last summer, offering a total 12,850 square feet of meeting space, is. "an authentic treasure restored," according to Miller.

Moubayed adds: "It's not only a historically and architecturally interesting building in the city. Groups staying here can feel and experience that history."