Feb 25, 2022
Timeless lighting preserves the history of a Beaux-Arts hospital that now houses a dual-brand hotel
By Samantha Schwirck

Some might know the old Cook County Hospital in Chicago as host to the world’s first-ever blood bank in 1937. Others might recall its reputation as the inspiration for the hit medical TV drama ER. More recently, however, the 106-year-old Beaux-Arts hospital garnered a less-glamorous reputation, as it sat vacant for two decades: imperiled. Fortunately, that changed in 2020, when the ornate brick and terra-cotta-faced building reopened as a 210-room dual-brand hotel, housing both the Hyatt House and Hyatt Place Chicago (Medical/University District).

The 342,000-sq ft adaptive reuse project is just one part of a larger multi-phase redevelopment plan for the new medical district on the city’s west side. However, the building serves as a natural anchor for the development due to its size and ornate design, now emphasized by subtle illumination designed by Peter Hugh of Hugh Lighting Design (Oak Park, IL). “The team wanted to honor the history of the building and capture its unique architectural presence without becoming enslaved by the same history and dating it,” Hugh explains. “The lighting design works to show the architectural history of the building while providing a functioning and comfortable hospitality space. The lighting also employs a sense of timelessness in its style. We approached the history and feel of the space to engage shadow as much as light to create interest and relief throughout.”

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After evaluating the deterioration that had occurred since the hospital’s closure, the team first restored and preserved historical pieces, including the exterior’s original Beaux-Arts masonry detailing, terra-cotta ornamentation and wood-framed windows.

Floodlights with a 27-deg beam (Targetti) now illuminate large centerpiece columns, causing them to pop out from the terra-cotta background, which creates depth. “During the day, they can be seen as two dimensional, with the front fluting being the notable aspect. [At night], we chose to light them from the sides, at approximately 2 and 10 o’clock, to highlight the front sides while allowing the very front to fade into shadow,” Hugh says.

Hidden on a ledge, the fixtures comply with the Chicago Landmarks Commission’s direction that any fixtures lighting the major architectural elements could not be visible or detract from the façade elements. “While small in stature, these fixtures have a lot of punch and beam-spread options,” Hugh adds. “We originally had a tighter 17-deg beam on the columns to allow the front face to be in shadow. Field-discovered conditions made us have to move them out more, thus we went with the wider distribution to still wrap light around the sides.”

Containing the uplight to the columns allows linear grazers at 2200K (Ecosense), located between the columns, to accentuate the replaced terra-cotta finish in the background. “This also worked to set a color contrast to the exterior façade that honors the historic finishes,” Hugh adds.

Following the columns skyward, the upper façade serves as the building’s “crown,” with circular arches illuminated by compact linear projectors (Targetti) with a narrow grazing beam distribution. “We wanted a small fixture with a graze type optic to highlight those features without over-lighting and competing with the large columns,” Hugh says. “They [Targetti] modified a mounting bracket for us to work with the existing façade conditions at those upper locations.” Mounted in 2-ft linear sections, the 3000K fixtures blend into the architectural surfaces, allowing the “crown jewels” on top to shine.

At the pedestrian level, contemporary LED sconces (Targetti) at 3000K illuminate the lower façade, without competing with column/crown lighting or casting light into the windows or at nearby buildings. “The Landmarks Commission approved this fixture as it did not fight the building architecture,” Hugh says. “We wanted the wide-spread upper distribution to highlight the building details, while offering safety lighting on the grounds below.”

The fixtures also reveal street-level architectural details, such as arches that aren’t visible during the day. “During a mock-up, the ownership remarked that they never noticed or appreciated the lower detail until we held this fixture up,” Hugh adds. Globe lights on posts, re-created with new LED sources by Sternberg Lighting, provide supplementary street-level illumination.

Inside, restored elements include decorative plaster work, the double-height main lobby and marble stone staircase, elevator cores, as well as the double-loaded corridor and interior terrazzo flooring. “We tried to make the lighting as innocuous as possible so that the spaces could be appreciated for what they are,” Hugh says. “The interior designer had done a good job of bringing an updated motif to the development, so we worked with low brightness fixtures with wider distributions to minimize the quantity of fixtures.”

Limited mounting heights due to the historic ceilings and trim was another factor in the design team’s decision to specify Pantec uplights (Erco) throughout the interior. “We mocked up many manufacturers on a ‘value scale’ to find the best ones for the spaces that worked and worked in our allotted budget,” Hugh says. “This fixture best provided a uniform wash on the ceiling while allowing us to hit the Hyatt standards for light levels.”

In some areas such as typical corridors, the Hyatt standards called for higher illuminance than the IES recommendations for hospitality. “They requested 15 footcandles in these corridors versus the 3-5 fc that we might normally see in hospitality,” Hugh says. Finally, a Lutron Vive control system—selected for its flexibility, value and ability to work with the architectural challenges of a historic building—ties all of the lighting together, helping the project meet energy codes including IES/ASHRAE 90.1-2013.

The client’s tight budget was a consideration through the design team’s last steps. “The final technique we applied is called Kanso in Zen terms. It basically means looking at the near-finished product and then stripping away elements that may make others have more impact. This also serves as a great VE method. The mindset became not where to put light, but where to put shadow/take away light.”

Finishing touches did not deter Hugh from meeting an aggressive schedule. Completed in just over two years, the hospital-turned-hotel is now an official Chicago landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places—with a restored reputation to boot.


Samantha Schwirck

Samantha Schwirck is Managing Editor for... More info »