Modern Chicago Hospital Faces Demolition
By Elizabeth McNamara | Online Only | Apr. 6, 2011
After years of speculation among Chicago preservationists, officials at Northwestern University last month confirmed plans to demolish the old Prentice Women's Hospital. Architect Bertrand Goldberg designed the high-rise to much acclaim upon its completion in 1974. The structure consists of a simple glass-and-steel base topped by a seven-story concrete quatrefoil tower, which used to contain maternity floors. But when Northwestern opened a new Prentice Women's Hospital in 2007, the university vacated most of the tower—only the Stone Institute of Psychiatry remains on the ground floor, though it will do so only until September.
"We're not walking away," says Chris Morris, program officer in the National Trust's Midwest Office, in response to the news, which first appeared in a Mar. 26 story by Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin. "There is a whole category of late architecture that's 30 or 40 years old that is being demolished without ever being seriously evaluated, let alone given any sort of protection."
This week Alderman Brendan Reilly convinced the university to hold off on applying for a demolition permit for 60 days.
"The alderman holds a lot of weight right now," says Lisa DiChiera of Landmarks Illinois, a National Trust partner that has listed Prentice on its endangered historic places list for three consecutive years. "He has to look into what's in his best interest, the university's best interest, and the community's best interest."
Several months ago, Reilly asked Landmarks Illinois to prepare a feasibility study to explore whether old Prentice could be reused a research facility, office space, or medical student housing. The results should be available later this month.
DiChiera says the building "structurally achieved what Goldberg set out to do," which was to create a floor plan with no columns. This type of flexible planning would facilitate greater interaction between patients and care takers.
"Today it's such a nice, flexible floor plan that it's incredibly reusable," she says.
Reilly could not be reached for comment, but he did meet with Northwestern representatives last week, asking them to wait 60 days before applying for a demolition permit from the city. "The Old Prentice Hospital building deserves a careful review and the Re-use Study must first be presented, vetted and given the consideration it deserves," Reilly wrote online.
The university says it conducted its own study last fall and determined that the building's floor plan, and the outdated HVAC system make the building unacceptable for reuse.
"The building is in the heart of our medical research campus," says Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations. "We're northwest of Michigan Avenue, land is quite expensive, and we are extremely space-restrained. And so our current plans involve taking down that building and building a new medical research facility."
Cubbage says that university officials took old Prentice's architectural significance into consideration and would review any further report provided by the alderman.
"We haven't been separated long enough in time to believe 30-year-old buildings have merit, just as in the '60s, when people didn't appreciate Art Deco architecture," says DiChiera, who has heard people compare old Prentice to everything from a cheese grater to a jail.
In September, the Art Institute of Chicago will celebrate Goldberg's work in an exhibition entitled "Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention."
"Chicago has such an amazing legacy of modern architecture, and I think that we feel like that legacy hasn't really been understood yet," Morris says. "We're just going to have to keep working on the assumption that the alderman is going to help us begin these discussions with the university. But there is a new level of urgency now."
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