Oak Brook, Illinois Architect Celebrates 25 Years in DuPage County
Drawing precision, user performance, enduring relationships, and openness to challenges underpin Legat Architects’ Oak Brook studio legacy.
[Oak Brook, Illinois] – Mid-1990s. In one suite in Oak Brook’s Commerce Plaza, a team of young architects hustles to finish a project. Some jog from computer to computer. Others watch slow-moving plotters (state-of-the-art at the time) to make sure one of their pens doesn’t run out of ink—missing that could mean many hours of reprinting the complex drawings. Regardless of their task, each of these employees is on a quest to create better buildings and more concise drawings.
This scenario played out repeatedly in the formative years of Legat Architects’ Oak Brook, Illinois studio, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Today, some of the same men and women who launched that studio remain there, while others have transferred to other Legat locations. Though computers run much faster and the laser printer has drastically accelerated plotting speed, that studio (and the rest of the firm) has retained its dedication to teamwork, quality documentation, and meeting client needs.
Legat President and CEO Patrick Brosnan said, “Several factors are at the core of the studio’s success: an eagerness to take on new challenges, early adoption of industry technologies, a push for constant reinvention, and a desire to improve user performance by taking projects to the next level regardless of budget limitations.”
A Close-knit Group of Architects
In the early 1990s, DuPage County, enfolded by Chicago’s Cook County to the east, started to grow rapidly. Legat had operated a Lake County studio since 1964, and its clientele was growing. Leaders decided to begin the firm’s expansion by opening a DuPage County studio.
“We spent a lot of time deciding on the right location within the county,” said Brosnan. “Oak Brook turned out to be the wisest choice—it’s close to major highways and right on the DuPage/Cook County border.”
While searching the architectural archives of a DuPage County client, the Legat team discovered drawings from the Oak Brook-based firm of Iacopi & Associates. Not long after, Legat bought out the firm.
Brosnan said, “Iacopi & Associates had a lot of clients in the area and a good reputation, so the acquisition gave us a head start by building our portfolio and our credibility in the region.”
In 1992, Legat opened its DuPage County studio on the first floor of one of the trio of mid-rise buildings at Commerce Plaza on Spring Road. One of the first Oak Brook employees was Iacopi & Associates employee Berry DeSimone. DeSimone’s initial goal was to make sure the transition went smoothly, then move on. Though he achieved the first part of his goal, things turned out different for the second part—today, DeSimone is Legat’s chief operating officer.
The initial studio, led by principal Jeffrey Sronkoski, consisted overwhelmingly of men and women who graduated with the architecture degrees within a year or two of each other.
“We were churning out major work and we were all in our twenties,” said senior architect Rob Wroble. “We were really close. We worked a ton of hours, we socialized together, went to lunch together, had a softball team, and went to Great America [amusement park] every year.”
The workload grew. More employees joined. The firm knocked out one wall to expand into an adjacent unit. But in 2000, Legat had outgrown that space, so it moved across the corporate park to its current location at Suite 175.
Everybody Jumps In
While the studio’s design achievements escalated during its early years, its reputation for service is what helped it establish a regional foothold.
Brosnan, who was among the first wave of Oak Brook employees, cites as an example the commission the studio received for the new Coal City Middle School (completed in 2000). “It didn’t really matter that a nearby middle school that we designed was winning architectural awards; what mattered was that the superintendent of that district gave us a glowing recommendation.”
Word of mouth continued to bring in more projects. It started with small renovations and upgrades, then five clients were asking for a brand new building.
According to Brosnan, a strong sense of ownership for all projects among employees propelled the studio’s success. Sometimes, employees hurried around the studio and worked on the same project on 10 different computers because the floppy disks used at the time held so little information. There were also “collating parties” at which all employees walked around a table while organizing and hole-punching documents.
“If someone had a project going out to bid,” said Brosnan, “everybody dropped what they were doing and the entire office jumped in and helped out.”
Though Legat was known for service, the firm’s leadership had also recognized the long-term importance of stepping up its design efforts. With 75% of the Oak Brook studio’s workload dedicated to schools, it started there.
The commission for the studio’s (and the firm’s) first standalone school signaled an opportunity to take Illinois school design in a new direction. Minooka Junior High School, opened in 1997, gently curved away from the typical school. The 101,000-square-foot building showed other districts that an attractive, yet affordable school was entirely possible—it was constructed at $86 per square foot. In 1999, the school won an Award of Merit from the Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, and Illinois Association of School Business Officials.
Brosnan said, “Minooka Junior High inspired a firmwide mantra of ‘Let’s do it better.’ Throughout the years, we’ve always tried to look at what’s out there and give our clients something that works better.”
Next came Coal City Middle School, with its references to the community’s coal mining roots. These included a mining elevator-like entry tower, split-face and ground-face block, and the notes of an old mining song embedded in the music room floor.
In the succeeding years, the studio’s reputation for school design grew, as did its reputation for longstanding relationships, several of which have lasted since the studio’s inception.
Robin Randall, principal and leader of Legat’s preK-12 segment, was at another Chicago-area firm in the early 2000s. She said, “We would take potential clients through Legat schools as an example of the most cutting-edge architecture in Chicagoland.”
Beyond PreK-12 Education
The Oak Brook studio’s design output soon extended beyond primary and secondary education facilities. Its projects ranged from hotels and healthcare buildings to municipal facilities and international manufacturing complexes.
One example is Prairie State College’s Community Instructional Center. To do a check set for that project in the early nineties, senior architect and creative director Paul Pessetti and his team would wait until everyone left, then load a floppy disk onto every computer in the office.
Pessetti said, “The technology was slow at that time—you’d click on something then have to wait five minutes before you could make a change. We would click on one computer, run to the next, click on it, and so on.”
Today, Pessetti remains a member of the Oak Brook studio, and the Community Instructional Center, with its spiraling auditorium, stands as a cherished building on the Prairie State campus.
It wasn’t long after Legat’s Oak Brook studio opened that DuPage County municipalities started calling on the firm. Commissions for new public works facilities for Addison and Elmhurst came within days of each other. The 55,000-square-foot Addison facility and the Elmhurst facility at twice that size consolidated all public works functions under one roof. Designers used this as an opportunity to create structures that outshone the typical municipal garage.
The work has stood the test of time. Employees continue to take prospects to those facilities.
The Oak Brook studio’s project portfolio goes far beyond the DuPage County region—its designers teamed with employees in Legat’s other Chicago-area studios for Baxter International projects all over the world. One design innovation was a processing plant in shipping containers that could be assembled in the field to create sterilization plants in third-world countries. Over the course of a decade, the firm designed over 40 projects in 30 countries.
Gring with Clients
Between 1990 and 2000, the population of New Lenox, Illinois skyrocketed from 9,600 to 17,800. In 1992, the Oak Brook studio took on its first project for New Lenox School District 122: documenting all district facilities into AutoCAD, a relatively new program at the time. Next came design for an underground tank at the district’s old bus facility. Since then, the district and Legat have worked together on six new school buildings and several major renovations.
“At one point,” said Pessetti, “most of us were doing life safety projects, while Rob [Wroble] was wrapping up four new schools with New Lenox.”
This story of growing with clients has played out repeatedly in the evolution of the Oak Brook studio:
- What started as a woodshop renovation for Glenbard Township High School District 87 led to over 300,000 square feet of additions, renovations, and upgrades at the district’s four high schools including an award-winning expansion of the near-century old Glenbard West High School.
- A wood beam replacement at Brentwood Elementary School turned into major rehabilitation projects at eight [Arlington Heights] Community Consolidated School District 59 schools and, mostly recently, the design of a new Early Learning Center.
- Moline-Coal Valley School District No. 40 commissioned Legat to lead a district-wide master plan in 1992. After many facility upgrades throughout the district, the firm designed the new Hamilton Elementary School (completed 2014). Today, the Bartlett Performing Arts Center is under construction at Moline High School.
- In 1995, the Oak Brook studio won a design competition for an addition to Wiesbrook Elementary School in [Wheaton-Warrenville] Community Unit School District 200. Since then, Legat has provided planning or design services for all district schools. Highlights include the new Hubble Middle School (completed 2009) and conceptual design of a new Early Childhood Center.
Drawing from the Past
When visitors entered Legat’s Oak Brook studio lobby in the mid-nineties, they would often be greeted with rolls upon rolls of architectural drawings. That was when contractors picked up drawings from the office, and before Legat started distributing the drawings electronically or sending them to printers. And the only way for building owners to visualize their project was through plans and sketches.
At the same time, employees like Jay Johnson, now a principal, had to contend with “high-tech” devices like a fax machine whose thermal paper would curl up and turn black if left in sunlight for too long. Then there was the inefficiency of the machine. Johnson said, “If you had a 50-page addendum, you’d have to send it out to every contractor individually via fax.”
Today, the Oak Brook studio lobby is free of rolls and a 50-page addenda can go to unlimited recipients at the click of a button. Clients can see their projects in 3-dimensional computer models and even do virtual walk-throughs of their new or renovated spaces.
Nevertheless, when visitors step into the studio, they’ll discover some things haven’t changed—camaraderie, loyalty, and openness to new challenges.
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