What’s That Building? McDonald’s Oak Brook Headquarters | WBEZ
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What's That Building? McDonald's Oak Brook Headquarters

McDonald’s Corp. is moving back to Chicago this spring. The company is shifting into a custom-made building in the West Loop, leaving its current west suburban home where it’s been since 1971.

But what will be left behind in Oak Brook? An 86-acre campus of three major buildings that are surrounded by lakes, streams, woods, and lawns, and just under two miles away, an eight-story office building near the sprawling Oakbrook Center shopping mall.

Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin discusses McDonald’s soon-to-be former campus and how it embodies two different suburban corporate styles of the 20th century.

A return trip

McDonald's decision to move its headquarters is part of a trend: Big companies like Nielsen, Kraft Heinz, and Motorola Solutions have been packing up from their suburban locations and moving into the city. The moves are return trips for these companies, which used to be headquartered in Chicago. In the decades after World War II, they moved out to the suburbs as America and Chicago switched to suburban life. Now that they're headed back into town, most say it's because the city is where young workers prefer to be and where innovation happens.

That's very similar to the justification they offered when leaving the city a generation or two ago, when they headed to the suburbs for quieter, more wide-open spaces, with less of the dust and noise of the city, more parking for employees' cars, and shorter commutes to the booming suburban neighborhoods where they'd lived.

A bridge on McDonald's Oak Brook campus overlooks Lake Fred. (Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ)

When McDonald's left downtown Chicago, where it had been headquartered since 1955, the company first opened the midrise McDonald's Plaza building a few blocks from the shopping mall in 1971, and seven years later, opened the campus on a tract of wooded land less than two miles south. The company ultimately had about 150 acres in Oak Brook, some of which it's never developed and that the local park district uses for soccer fields.

McDonald's Plaza (Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ)

McDonald's Plaza, the office building, was the first big building McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc constructed in Oak Brook and helped establish Oak Brook as a corporate headquarter site. It’s barely more than a mile over the border in DuPage County, and it was eventually joined by companies such as Ace Hardware, Blistex, and Federal Signal.

The plaza was designed by Salvatore Balsamo — an architect whose work mostly consisted of thousands of tract houses and condominiums. Its waffle-like exterior of window slits punched into its concrete shell makes it slightly Brutalist, but it's more conventional in shape than Brutalist buildings like the libraries at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.

A new campus

A few years later, Kroc's successor as CEO, Fred Turner, called up several architecture firms around the country and told them he wanted to build a different kind of headquarters — a low-density, campus-like environment that became popular in the mid-1950s.

It was a prestige move at the time, according to Louise Mozingo, a University of California, Berkeley professor and landscape architect who wrote a 2014 book about suburban office campuses. She called the style, and her book, “pastoral capitalism.” The idea was that the modern company was so far from the gritty, smoky industries of the 19th century that it should have a green, comfortable setting that transmitted an image of pleasant, elevating working conditions.

One of the architects Turner called was Dirk Lohan, who collaborated with him to design the three major buildings on the campus: an office building, a hotel, and the training center called Hamburger U.

A Hyatt hotel on McDonald's Oak Brook campus sits amid a wooded setting. (Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ)

"What motivated him was creating a better environment for his employees, a park-like setting where you could have trees around you and take a walk in the fresh air," Lohan said.

McDonald's campus office building (Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ)

The campus that McDonald’s unveiled in 1978 looked, for the most part, as it still does 40 years later, Lohan said. The buildings are long, low red-brick structures set into the landscape, which is laced with streams, paths, waterfalls, and mature trees that were protected during construction. It feels like a small university campus, but one that was built in the 1970s.

The sites’ future

What happens to the two major McDonald's sites in Oak Brook after the move is still up in the air. The McDonald's Plaza office building is likely to be bought by interests that would tear it down and build new, Oak Brook village officials and real estate brokers have said.

The larger piece, the campus, would be relatively easy to convert to another use, such as residential, Lohan said. And there's been talk of pitching it to Amazon, although most indications are that if Amazon were to pick Chicago for its prized HQ2, it would go in a more urban setting than DuPage County.

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