Ward Miller excitedly strode into the entrance of Chicago’s newest converted landmark but was stopped short.

It was both the beauty of the new Gray Hotel’s majestic two-story lobby with its opulent marble expanse from floor to ceiling, and the dozens of newly hired hotel employees lining the double grand staircases that caught the executive director of Preservation Chicago off guard.

“They were all applauding,” says a proud Miller, who was bestowed the honor of first guest of the hotel at 39 S. LaSalle St. It’s in the restored, 1894 New York Life Building that Miller’s group has worked to save since its 2001 founding.

“After 16 years, at numerous points in time threatened with demolition, to see this building restored, repurposed and reused was just a remarkably exhilarating moment,” he says.

It’s such moments that Preservation Chicago, celebrating its 15th year of working to preserve Chicago’s historic architecture, neighborhoods and urban spaces, lives for.

The Gray Hotel’s two-story 1890s-era lobby features marble from floor to ceiling, framing double grand staircases.

The Gray Hotel’s two-story 1890s-era lobby features marble from floor to ceiling, framing double grand staircases. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

In that battle, they win some, as with the New York Life Building in the heart of the city’s LaSalle Street financial district. Designed by William Le Baron Jenney, known as “the father of the skyscraper,” it’s now the 293-room Gray Hotel.

They also lose some. Historic buildings that have fallen to the wrecking ball in the past 15 years, despite the group’s best efforts, include the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 2003. The Illinois Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary at Sangamon & Adams, Dana Hotel at 666 N. State, and Art Institute of Chicago’s Goodman Theater & Columbus Drive Plaza all fell in 2005. And there was the Hayes Healy Center Building at DePaul University in 2006; the Farwell Building at 660 N. Michigan in 2007; and most of Michael Reese Hospital Campus, in 2009.

“When we all came together in June 1999 for a candlelight vigil on the steps of St. Boniface Church to save it from demolition, we realized there needed to be an organization specifically for the preservation of Chicago’s rich historic legacy,” Miller recounts. “We partner with Landmark Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but we are the only group which concentrates on the city.”

It is only this month that the more than 16-year battle to save St. Boniface in West Town — the group’s very first project — is heading toward culmination. Built in the late 1890s, the Romanesque Revival style church designed by Henry J. Schlacks, “the master of Catholic church architecture in Chicago,” was closed by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1990. Numerous reuse proposals have been rejected.

After a complicated land swap agreement between the archdiocese, Board of Education and Institutional Project Management LLC, the church’s new life as a senior living center is expected to be approved at a court hearing in late September.

“In the last six months, the city has invited us to see if we can find a developer who could reuse the building. I think we found a good developer,” Miller said last month as he headed to yet another status hearing in Building Court.

“I’ve been here every month for a very long time now. I think we finally have a solution,” he says. “And the New York Life Building was the second preservation effort we undertook. So as you can see, these efforts sometimes take a very long time to come to fruition. But damn it, it’s worth it.”

In the group’s win column are buildings like Cook County Hospital; Lake Shore Athletic Club at 850 Lake Shore Drive; St. Gelasius Church at 64th & Woodlawn; American Book Co. Building at 320-330 E. Cermak; Vesemen Building at 444 N. LaSalle; Metropolitan (Apostolic) Community Church at 41st & King Drive; and the Scherer Building at 1201 N. State, the group’s very first save.

The 14-story New York Life Building was resurrected by a $106 million investment by the Kimpton Hotels chain. Restored marble floors and walls, wainscoting and coffered ceilings, wide hallways and graceful archways, hearken to another era.

Jenney pioneered the first building constructed with a steel internal frame in 1885. That was Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, at LaSalle and Adams. Demolished in 1931, it was considered the first skyscraper, the steel skeleton allowing for greater height and stability than traditional masonry.

The Gray Hotel, at LaSalle and Monroe, opened last week, capping a successful effort to save and reuse a landmark building designed by William Le Baron Jenney. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

The Gray Hotel, at LaSalle and Monroe, opened last week, capping a successful effort to save and reuse a landmark building designed by William Le Baron Jenney. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Gray Hotel celebrated its opening Aug. 30, a week after having Miller as its first guest. The fifth hotel here for Kimpton, the brand is known for its boutique hotels in architecturally significant buildings.

“We work with local partners to restore our buildings and bring them back to life so that what you see on the outside translates into an entire new world on the inside, essentially, creating different pockets of experience in the buildings,” says General Manager Nabil Moubayed. Gray Hotel’s novelties include a rooftop restaurant with retractable glass roof.

“To take a building from 1894, built by the father of this type of architecture and be able to bring it back to life, we’re honored to be the company that could do that,” says Moubayed.

“Whenever we open a hotel, we try to find a tie-in to someone connected to its historical significance, and bestow the honor of first guest. The more I got to know Ward and his intense passion for the work that they do in preserving these historic buildings, it just felt like fate that it should be him,” he says.