Q&A with Laura Hochuli: The Governor's Mansion Renovation Project

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On July 14th, the Illinois Governor’s Mansion reopened to the public after a year-long renovation project. Originally built in 1855 and expanded in the 1970s, the mansion was in dire need of renovations—and Governor Bruce Rauner and First Lady Diana Rauner pledged the people of Illinois they would facilitate this project using solely private funds.

Women Working for Change spoke with Laura Hochuli, a lead architect with Vinci | Hamp Architects, to learn about the unique challenges of this project and the significance of the mansion to Illinois history.



WW4C: Tell us about yourself and your background: where did you study architecture? What types of projects do you enjoy the most?  Which architects do you admire or influence your work?

Laura Hochuli: I have been practicing architecture since 1980 when I graduated from college. I’ve received both my Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture (with an emphasis on historic preservation) from the University of Wisconsin. I have been working in Chicago ever since. For three years while going to school, I did summer internships at HABS—the Historic American Building Survey—based in Washington, D.C.

That’s when I really discovered my love for historic architecture. I worked in Washington D.C. for a summer, working on many residences on the National Register of Historic Places, and the next summer I worked in Boston, where I recorded and drew up the Paul Revere House and the John Adams birthplaces. Then I did a study of Lowell, which had just been purchased by the Park Service as a historic town, and it’s now a historic park. It was one of the first mills in the country. It was a company town—all the residences there were for people who worked in the factories.

My final summer after I graduated, I took a job in Chicago, working at the auditorium building by Louis Sullivan, downtown by Michigan Avenue. I recorded, measured, and drew up buildings. There were no physical plans left from his practice, so these were a way to record the building as it had been built and changed over the years… Since earning my degree, I have been working mainly in renovations on historic structures in Chicago.

WW4C: How did you end up being the lead architect on the Illinois Governor’s Mansion renovation project?

Laura Hochuli: They reached out to Vinci | Hamp Architects. One-third to one-half of our work is historic structures. We work on very significant historic structures—we’re known for that, and people are led to us because of our past work. Several of the people on the board knew of our work and had worked with us in the past, and we were contacted to see if we’d be interested and what we could recommend. That eventually led us to submit a proposal.

Vinci | Hamp Architects has a history of restoration and renovation projects of significant buildings. Most of my work for the past 20 years has been large-scale commercial and residential historic renovation projects, so this project was a good fit for me to lead. I had recently completed a renovation and addition to a National Register of Historic Places 1920’s residence—and now museum and gardens—in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, multiple renovation projects at the University Club of Chicago built in 1905 and the Michigan Avenue Gage Building built in 1895, and I was the design architect for the renovation of the Fort Sheridan Barracks north of Chicago. This was an 800-foot-long, three-story 1889 masonry structure converted to 52 condominiums.

WW4C: How did you feel about taking on a project that was called “the state’s most embarrassing fixer-upper” by the Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin?

Laura Hochuli: Most of the projects we are called into have some level of dilapidation. Historic structures, by their nature, have a lot of challenges because of the antiquated construction types and the fact that they’re so old. Most have not been lovingly taken care of, and they’re often money-sinks to keep them up… We have been called in to renovate old buildings that have been neglected due to changes in use or ownership, lack of funds, or owners who were unsure of how to make repairs in a historic significant building.

This project wasn’t surprising; we’d seen most of the conditions of this run-down building in previous projects, just not all in one building. The mansion was so run-down and the site so overgrown we were surprised it was still occupied and open to the public for tours. It was clear to us on our first site visit that much of the exterior wood trim, decks, stairs, railings, gutters, and downspouts were so deteriorated we would have no option but to remove and completely replace them.  Once the roof was replaced and the interior could be kept dry, we also addressed the extensive interior finish repairs.



WW4C: Explain what the renovation of the Illinois Governor’s Mansion included; what did you do inside and outside?  How did you modernize the mansion?

Laura Hochuli: It was a pretty extensive project. Very little work had been done since the last renovation in 1972. That’s a long time to sit and deteriorate, frankly. There was a good amount of work to be done since it no longer met code, both safety and ADA accessibility.

We provided an elevator—there was an elevator from 1972, but for the previous six years it had been broken. Because of the steep slope, some people couldn’t actually access the building, and there wasn’t one three-foot-wide exterior door on the property. On many levels, it was not ADA-compliant, and that was part of the overall renovation. The renovation involved upgrading and replacing all the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems that were about 46 years old and had reached their lifespan. We couldn’t replace all of them, but we could repair or investigate anything we didn’t fully replace and upgrade it. We replaced the worst of the conditions as the finances allowed.

We also improved the security and safety systems—it was only partially sprinkled in the basement, so we fully sprinkled the basement and added a sprinkler riser to eventually sprinkle the rest of the building. I think there were nine access doors into the property, only two of which had security. As the governor’s mansion, it was not a very secure place, so that took some time. We also redid all the public bathrooms and added new public bathrooms, since there weren’t enough facilities for the number of people who visit the mansion. The governor’s apartments had not been upgraded at all since 1972. It was very dated and did not have a kitchen in it, so we upgraded the apartment into a very livable space.

We reconfigured the ground floor to make it a public-accessible space for the tours and provided a new orientation education room to expand the education aspects of this building. Then we replaced almost all the flooring throughout; we repainted and added new wall covering so all the finishes are now historically correct.

It was a very extensive project. I don’t know that when everybody started, they knew how extensive it would get. But I think we touched every surface—replacing windows and roosts, and repairing extensive masonry problems that we found as we went. It grew, as most of these projects do.

WW4C: How long did the renovation take to complete?

Laura Hochuli: We spent eighteen months designing with the board and the building committee, producing construction documents and getting a contractor on board. Construction was completed in one year, beginning on May 15, 2017, and the Governor moved back in on May 15, 2018. The one-year construction period was very quick for the size of the project.

WW4C: What is the difference between renovation and restoration?

Laura Hochuli: That is a word that confuses most people—a restoration returns the building to its completion date or date of significance in all its design, materials, and systems, so it is historically accurate. A renovation is a repair and improvement of the existing conditions of the building, so you improve it to the best condition you can, but not necessarily to the historic date.

This building had been built in 1855 but extensively modified in the 1970s, with a 30,000-square-foot addition onto the original 18,000 square feet. There was really no going back to the original square footage, and the modifications had changed the form of the historic building. We respected the original historic mansion and replaced as many of the details with original materials as we could, but it is certainly not a historic restoration to the original.

WW4C: Did you encounter anything unexpected while working on this project?

Laura Hochuli: We always encounter surprises in renovating buildings. One of the biggest things was the condition of the 1972 masonry. It was in much worse condition than we had anticipated; we didn’t anticipate putting the needed resources into it. In the 1970s, new cost-saving, labor-saving, and material-saving ways of installing masonry were employed on this job, but they didn’t hold up to time. In fact, by 1980, they were no longer using these methods. We had to repair that method of masonry installation throughout the new construction. Some of it, of course, held up, but there were areas that needed more intervention than we’d anticipated.

Another unexpected thing: we came across water underneath the ballroom floor. The standing water had come from a leaky drainpipe, but it had been there so long there was mold on the underside of the wood. We had to remove the entire floor we had anticipated reusing. We cleaned out all the mold, and then, because it was installed with an asbestos-backed adhesive, we had to abate the entire room before we could put the floor back in. So that was one very exciting surprise.

We found that in 1972, they put ductworks under the basement-floor slabs to save space. When we went to clean out the ducts and reconnect them, we found sitting water in them, which is a health hazard. We made the decision to abandon these ducts, then filled and capped them at the floor line and ran new supply and return ducts through the basement rooms to replace the abandoned ducts. So we now have a safe air handling system.

The final one we noticed only about two months before the end. We were replacing some of the doors in the mansion, and as we went to replace hardware on some doors, we discovered about 20 doors throughout the building that had asbestos cores in them. We could not reuse them or change the hardware on them. So, two months before completion, we had to remove all those doors, order new ones, and install new doors. We had not planned on this, but we had to do for safety.

WW4C: What were the major challenges in renovating a mansion built in the 19th century?

Laura Hochuli: There weren’t any major challenges to the 1855 building—we’ve run across this type of construction many times before, and that building had been renovated and extensively changed over the years, but it was pretty stable and well-built. Our biggest challenges were repairing the interventions that had been done or added to the building over the last hundred years. I guess we shouldn’t have been as surprised as we were, but we were more surprised about the additions and interventions than the historic building.

However, one challenge was providing new windows to fit existing window openings that had settled over the past 163 years. Many openings were not completely square and there were few openings the same size. We worked with Marvin Windows, who customized the windows and doors to fit our existing conditions. It was a tedious but needed and successful extra step to replace the building’s windows and doors.

WW4C: What was it like working with First Lady Diana Rauner on this project?

Laura Hochuli: She was a pleasure to work with. Diana was enthusiastic and energized, and brought a vision to not only renovate this building and site, but to add a component for education and tours to really hand it back to the public, bringing them in and educating them on the importance of not only the building, but the history that’s lived in the building.

The building has been there a long time. It was a lovely piece of architecture when it was built, but it’s the life and the history of that building that really makes it something special. Mrs. Rauner saw that, and put together not only teams to work on the building, but another one to come up with a new orientation and education room and presentation exhibit; a well-researched tour given by professional tour guides on the history of the building.

Mrs. Rauner was a proponent from the very beginning of bringing the building and its systems up to current codes, including making the property fully ADA compliant, improving the life safety building elements, and attempting LEED Silver Certification for the project. It was her vision and the energy she put behind it that fueled the success of all the team players. She was a real advantage to this project.

WW4C: What part of the mansion renovation makes you the proudest?

Laura Hochuli: We’ve been living and breathing this building for the past two and a half years, and what I really am proud of is the 1855 exterior of the building: the exterior cornice, rooftop railing, and new north entry based on the original materials, details, and entrance. These elements really return the formal and period-appropriate details to the historic mansion to give it the proportions and the feel and the finish of the 19th century.

When it was built, it was a very large formal residence done by a Chicago architect—and a masonry building, which wasn’t very common at the time. So it was an important structure, and a residence that the state was very proud of.  Over time, it had lost that impact of being special. We really wanted to bring that back and emphasize it… to turn it back to the vision it once was.

I am also excited that the construction was completed on time and under budget.   This was a difficult renovation with a very tight construction schedule and a limited budget. We were able to stretch and cover all of the unknown conditions we encountered.

WW4C: What do you think the original mansion architect, Jon Van Osdel, would say about the renovation?

Laura Hochuli: I think he’d be pleased with it. I wouldn’t have done it this way if I didn’t think he would be! I think he’d be startled by how big it had all grown and how overgrown the site was. Some of the early governors were thrilled they could see the Capitol dome from the front yard. When we first started the project, you couldn’t see anything from the front yard. It’s been cleared out, and you can see the dome again. So that’s a nice aspect of the project.

WW4C: What was it like to see everyone’s work on the mansion come together in the end?

Laura Hochuli: It was pretty exciting. We all worked to the end, and it’s always nerve-wracking bringing a project to conclusion. There were so many unfinished details up to the very end. We were replacing sod the week of the grand opening, so it was everybody’s guess whether we’d make it or not. In my calmer moments, I know we always get it done, and nobody else sees the slight imperfections that any of us working on it might.

It all came together in the last week, and it was amazing seeing the public there… Because we’d worked on nonstop construction for a year, and truly about two months ago nobody would’ve guessed it would be occupied now. Things have a way of working out.

WW4C: Now that the “People’s House” is open to the public again, what would you encourage visitors to the mansion to check out first?

Laura Hochuli: I think the first thing they need to do is walk the site to get a view of Springfield and the Capitol. The mansion is up on a hill—you can see the Capitol, and you’re only a couple blocks from Lincoln’s home. You can see the importance of how this whole house is sited—it is up higher than anything around it, and you can look over the whole town. Now that the site is cleared out, you can see that.

As you walk up, you can see how the house looked back in 1855 or close to 1900. That’s what they would’ve been looking at over 100 years ago, approaching the house. As you tour it, you need to think about how this house has been used, occupied, and visited by dignitaries and the regular public for the past 150-some years. It puts an importance on the house.

Each visitor should then tour the mansion to appreciate the grand formal scale and details of the residence, and understand how the mansion has been lived in since before the Civil War. The tour takes about 45 minutes, and it gives visitors a true background on the building, who’s lived there, and how it’s changed over the years. It’s not a stagnant building—it’s been lived in and used, and history’s been made there. It feels really good to learn those things and be in the building where these things have happened… I think visitors will appreciate the changes that have been made, and to learn what it looked like during the different periods… you can see how people change and how they lived over the years.

hayley bierkle