Chinatown: The Pui Tak Center

The Pui Tak Center during its 2009 restorationPhoto courtesy: Wikipedia

The Pui Tak Center during its 2009 restoration
Photo courtesy: Wikipedia


From Wikipedia:

The Pui Tak Center (Chinese: 中心; Mandarin Pinyin: Péidé Zhōngxīn; Jyutping: pui4 dak1 zung1 sam1; Cantonese Yale: Pùihdāk Jūngsām; literally “cultivating virtue center”), formerly known as the On Leong Merchants Association Building, is a building located in Chicago’s Chinatown. Designed by architects Christian S. Michaelsen and Sigurd A. Rognstad, the building was built for the On Leong Merchants Association and opened in 1928. The Association used it as an immigrant assistance center, and the building was informally referred to as Chinatown’s “city hall”. In 1988, the FBI and Chicago Police raided the building as part of a racketeering investigation. The US federal government seized the building that same year.

The building was purchased by the Chinese Christian Union Church (CCUC) for $1.4 million and renamed the Pui Tak Center in 1993. That same year, the On Leong Merchants Association Building was designated a Chicago landmark by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The CCUC spent $1 million raised from community donations to renovate and update the building’s neglected interior. The newly-named Pai Tak Center now hosts various religious, community, and educational programs, such as English-as-a-Second-Language courses (ESL).

In the 1920s, Chinese community leaders secured approximately 50 ten-year leases on properties in the newly developing Chinatown.  Jim Moy, director of the Association, then decided that a Chinese-style building should be constructed as a strong visual announcement of the Chinese community’s new presence in the area.  With no Chinese-born architects in Chicago at the time, Chicago-born Norse architects Christian S. Michaelsen and Sigurd A. Rognstad were asked to design the On Leong Merchants Association Building in the spring of 1926.  Moy decided to employ the pair again after Michaelsen and Rognstad’s firm built Moy’s Peacock Inn in Uptown in 1920.

After studying texts on Chinese architecture, Michaelsen and Rognstad’s final design was an example of Orientalism, a Western architect’s interpretation of Chinese architectural forms.  A good substitute for the liu li glazed ceramic found in traditional Chinese architecture, Rognstad designed exterior Teco sculptural accents, a type of terra cotta produced by Crystal Lake, Illinois‘s American Terra Cotta Company.  When the building plans were announced in the Chicago Tribune on July 4, 1926, the building was called, “One of the most expensive and elaborate buildings ever erected in America by the Chinese”.  Construction began in 1926 and was completed a year later for the cost of $1 millon.

In preparation for the restoration work, the structural and architectural engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates completed an evaluation of the building’s eastern and southern facades, focusing on its terra cotta portions.  By using ultrasonic testing, engineers were able to evaluate the state of the terra cotta without further damaging the pieces. Severely cracked or damaged pieces were partially removed and a report was written from these findings.  This report provided recommendations for the masonry facade and terra cotta repair work.  Restoration work began in spring 2009 and is scheduled for completion in early 2010.  All of the damaged terra cotta elements have been replaced on the south tower and parapet, and scaffolding has been erected on building’s eastern facade in preparation for further restoration work.  Fully restoring the building’s exterior terra cotta pieces and clay roof tiles is the first step in a long-range $2 million repair plan.


Here are a few images of the restored Pui Tak Center’s glazed terra cotta tile pieces, which I took during my short visit to Chicago’s Chinatown:

Pui Tak Bldg Detail-1

A bit of damage has been done here at the northeast corner of the building, because it borders on an alleyway used by delivery trucks.

Pui Tak Bldg Detail-2

The south wall off the doors located in the final image of this post.  This peacock faces his twin, standing regally on the opposite wall.

Pui Tak Bldg Detail-3

Here’s a closer look at the craftsmanship of this peacock.

Pui Tak Bldg Detail-4

Looking up at the ceiling of the entrance seen in the next image.

Not exactly 'tile', but the door handles, rails, and leaded glass of this entrance truly intrigued me!

Not exactly ’tile’, but the door handles, rails, and leaded glass of this entrance truly intrigued me!