|Milwaukee native Laura Hochuli is a partner with Vinci | Hamp Architects, Inc. (VHA). Cantigny selected the Chicago-based firm for Phase III of Project New Leaf, the renovation of McCormick House.
Hochuli is VHA’s lead architect on the project, drawing on her expertise in historic preservation. Projects during her 39-year career include renovation work on the Illinois governor’s mansion in Springfield and landmarks such as Chicago’s Newberry Library, University Club and Wicker Park House. She joined VHA as a project manager in 1999 and became a partner in 2014.
A native Milwaukeean, Hochuli received her education in the Cream City, too. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Three summer internships with the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) fostered her interest in conserving historic structures.
Hochuli is working full time on the McCormick House renovation, mostly from remote. She visits the historic home on a regular basis to monitor progress, adjust plans as needed, and consult with representatives from Cantigny and Featherstone, Inc., the project manager.
In February, four months into the renovation, Hochuli graciously pushed back from her drafting board to answer our questions about the work on Colonel McCormick’s 30,000-square-foot former residence.
Q: What aspect of the McCormick House project do you find most interesting?
A: I enjoy working with historic structures and repurposing them for a new use, while respecting the original architecture and keeping the building’s significance intact. It’s a satisfying challenge to incorporate present day code and performance requirements into an historic building without sacrificing its integrity. Historic buildings have quality of materials and finishes that are not seen in today’s work. I appreciate the patina historic buildings have; it’s important to retain that wherever possible.
Q: What are two or three major challenges of this project?
A: It is important and always a challenge to conceal life safety and accessibility requirements into a 120-year-old building. One of our goals is to fully conceal this work, so it doesn’t distract from the historic architecture. However, it seems that no matter how much time we spend investigating an old building before construction starts, we run into unknown conditions including contaminated materials, unsafe construction and archaic construction techniques. We are constantly adjusting details and reworking the plans.
Q: VHA won an award in 2019 for its restoration work on the Illinois Executive Mansion, the governor’s home, with you in the lead. What lessons from that project might be applied to McCormick House?
A: The Governor’s Mansion was another large residential historic building but had suffered 45 years of “neglected maintenance.” The roof, windows, wood porches and mechanical systems were all well beyond their expected serviceable life resulting in active leaks, mold and falling plaster. During construction we discovered unstable masonry conditions, stagnant water in ducts and under floors and more mold, asbestos and contaminated materials than anticipated. Each of these unknown conditions had to be resolved while also maintaining the project schedule.
McCormick House hasn’t suffered the same neglect but has not seen major improvements in about 40 years. The mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems all need to be fully replaced, which we are doing with new energy efficient systems and service. We are incorporating fire sprinklers, leveling floors, adding an elevator and ramps, and changing the grade and porches to make the house fully accessible. Right now, the interior walls and finishes are being taken apart to remove these old systems and structurally reinforce the framing. This work has already exposed unexpected materials and construction issues. Once again, the design team is adjusting the design as each unknown is discovered.
What I learned from the Governor’s Mansion, and previous historic renovations, is to expect the unexpected. Owners often ask what could possibly go wrong. We never know in advance, but something always comes up. We draw upon our previous experiences, but each building is unique and sure to have its own surprises. Nothing has shocked us yet, but this project is far from done.
Q: In terms of practical and visible improvements, what do you think visitors to McCormick House will like most when the home reopens in 2022?
A: Visitors will enjoy the easy access and accessibility to the house and each floor. However, these changes will not be noticed, because they will feel part of the original historic building. I hope visitors notice the beautiful architecture, the scale of the windows, doors and rooms, and the rich finishes which are all there now, but they do not currently look special. We will be refinishing the floors, repainting every surface and adding new lighting to brighten the interiors and highlight the fireplaces and wall finishes. Exhibit rooms are being developed on the first and second floors to enhance the visitor experience and celebrate the history of the house and its occupants.
Q: What would you say to those who are worried about the renovation changing or even spoiling the character of McCormick House?
A: This is a worry we share, understand and respect. Our goal with this project is to restore the existing building to its original significance with all interventions concealed. We consider a restoration project successful when a visitor entering for the first time asks what work was done, because everything looks like it was originally part of the building. Hopefully, McCormick House visitors will feel that way.