July 29, 2015

Virgin Terrain: Rockwell Group Europe Innovates at Virgin Hotels Chicago

When Richard Branson announced plans for his Virgin Group to open 20 hotels around the world, expectations immediately hit the roof. Pundits predicted a slew of modernist buildings, and everyone anticipated new notions in lodging, too. Known for reclassifying and reengineering every aspect of travel, hospitality, and entertainment—on-demand dining aboard Virgin Atlantic Airways, for example—Branson never assumes that precedents are worth following, not even the best-established ones. 

The first Virgin Hotels location, a 1928 landmarked Chicago bank by the noted movie theater architects Rapp and Rapp, is just steps from the famed Loop’s elevated train. Honoring that historic
fabric became goal number one for Rockwell Group Europe, an offshoot of Interior Design Hall of Fame member David Rockwell’s U.S. firm. At the time, Rockwell Group Europe’s creative director was Diego Gronda. (He recently left to start his own firm.) And Gronda already knew Branson, having started work a dozen years ago on his massive private retreat in New Jersey, of all exotic locales—a project that was never fully realized.

Known for nonstop traveling, staying at a different hotel every night to keep abreast of the latest hospitality trends, Gronda was equally passionate about the Chicago project’s number-two goal: CEO Raul Leal was looking for an unmistakably Virgin-branded lifestyle experience where, as always, no detail or process is taken for granted. Gronda was prepared to deliver, based on more research per square foot than a robotics lab. “The result had to be this masterpiece envisaged by Leal but at the same time preserve Chicago’s glorious past,” Rockwell explains. 

The 26-story flagship’s 250 guest rooms are
awash in originality. Their doors in Virgin red are accompanied by matching sconces that would look right at home on a front porch and, if you’ve reserved a pet-friendly room, a life-size porcelain pooch waiting patiently under the light. In standard rooms, the first things you notice upon entering  are a makeup station and a sink vanity—Gronda notes that about half of guests will be women. The WC and shower are behind doors nearby, and the bedroom beckons straight ahead. Its patented bed features a padded corner footboard for creative reclining. Other ways to lounge and relax include a swivel chair in extravagant hand-stitched leather. Stitching also details the gray felt wall covering, which incorporates convenient pockets for menus and TV remotes. Overall, the aura is calming, versus the rock-and-roll vibe of the penthouse suites.

Alongside the innovations, the team also left well enough alone. The bank’s intricately ornamented plaster coffering, discovered by Leal behind a suspended ceiling, has been restored as a highlight of the double-height restaurant, the Commons Club. As the oval island bar in the center of the restaurant soars up toward the plasterwork, surprising nooks to the sides also play a role. One called the Funny Library features shelves stocked with silly art and books about comedy, plus a chandelier with acrylic orbs containing toy figurines.

Gronda’s vision draws out the best of the art deco
elements. Cast bronze panels, found on some elevator doors, have now been replicated for other levels. The lobby, an archetypal bank entry, has been polished up and but left largely untouched—though a red carpet now spills its way down the marble stairs to “pool,” like paint, on the floor.

Guests who linger on the ground level will encounter the red British phone booth that serves as the reception stand for Miss Ricky’s, a reinterpretation of a 1960’s Hollywood diner. Other guests might meander down to the basement’s elegant spa or venture all the way up to the rooftop bar by Rockwell’s fellow Hall of Fame member Paola Navone.

The variety and creativity are pure Chicago, as seen through a Virgin lens. “We didn’t want people referring to us as just ‘that red hotel,’” Leal says. This is no game of Monopoly. 

Project Team 
Booth Hansen: Architect Of Record. Wolff Landscape Architecture: Landscaping Consultant. Brian Orter Lighting Design: Lighting Consultant. Forefront Structural Engineers: Structural Engineer. Midwest Engineering Company: Mechanical Engineer. Jms Electric: Electrical Engineer. O’sullivan: Plumbing Engineer. Cain Millwork: Woodwork. James Mchugh Construction Co.: General Contractor.


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