Glass and steel are the stuff of legacy in the town that gave rise to the nation’s first skyscraper, but muscular block masonry is also a Chicago tradition. For more than a decade, infill developer Bob Ranquist has been melding the two aesthetics in boutique projects with a contemporary edge. And it’s fair to say the cumulative force of his work has sparked a renaissance in the city’s swanky Bucktown neighborhood.

The handsome four-story condo building at 1615 N. Wolcott St., an anchor in the final phase of a revitalization project known as “Urban Sandbox,” exemplifies his milieu. Designed to complement a handful of similarly skinned single-family homes on the same block, it’s a classic case of form following function.

The structure is essentially a cube overlaid with a steel and glass frame on its south side. Sleek in profile, the lattice creates structural platforms for decks and creates a buffer from the street, allowing residents to enjoy floor-to-ceiling windows and natural light without feeling exposed. The frame also adds layers of transparency and dimension to an otherwise plain façade, posing a delicate counterbalance to the building’s solid core.

It was also an economical solution, says architect Dave Miller. The fact that the frame installation was an add-on at the end allowed for more efficient construction sequencing and required less of a staging area. Steel tubes (for frame verticals) and wide flanges (for horizontal members) were combined to form two-story modules, which were then craned up and bolted in place once the building shell was intact. The last step was clipping translucent, modular panels in between the frames.

“Our philosophy is that structure becomes the architectural expression and the defining ornamentation,” says Miller, whose Seattle firm has partnered with Ranquist on previous projects. The building’s streamlined interiors follow this ethic, as does its entry sequence—a progression of spare steel armatures (which will eventually serve as trellises for vegetation) culminating at a cedar screen wall by the front door (see cover photo).

The eight-unit residence (which houses a mix of two-bedroom flats, three-bedroom lofts, and twin penthouses with access to private roof decks) is an elegant improvement on the warehouse building that previously filled the lot, although it maintains the same 50-foot stature. To retain the height allowance for commercial zoning, Ranquist specified the pro forma as mixed-use and included an 1,800-square-foot office space on the ground floor, which is now occupied by a pediatric dentist.

“We wanted to build as high as we could because that’s what you do in the city of Chicago,” says Ranquist director of development John Pawlicki. “You can see for miles from inside these units. Other commercial buildings will be able to build just as high, but not higher, so the views will never be blocked.”

Chalk that up as one of the many reasons the building, which opened in March 2009, commanded prices as high as $1.4 million and now has just one flat available. That and the fact that the site is a mere half block to a commercial district teeming with cafes, clubs, high-end retail, offices, and an elevated train station. It’s the place to be.

Categories: Project of the Year; Infill project (grand)
Entrant/Architect: The Miller|Hull Partnership, Seattle
Builder/Developer: Ranquist Development, Chicago
Architect of record: Osterhaus McCarthy Architects, Chicago

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL.