An Olympic Battle
Chicago Targets Walter Gropius-Designed Complex
By Helenah Swedberg | Online Only | June 1, 2009
Photos by Grahm Balkany, Gropius in Chicago Coalition
In Chicago, where architectural treasures inspire guided walks, boat tours, and neighborhood festivals, a collection of buildings designed by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius should be highly prized. Instead, the city intends to send 28 structures on the South Side Michael Reese Hospital campus to a landfill.
Preliminary demolition, which the city initiated as part of its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, is already under way. The interior of one building was stripped this spring, and other features have been looted. Several weeks ago, a memorial plaque commorating Gropius' participation in the project disappeared. A garden sculpture was also removed last month, presumably by looters. Visitors to the 37-acre campus in April watched city-contracted workers remove fixtures from a building and turn them over to a salvage operator.
According to the city, however, "no demolition has begun." Any items that were removed from the buildings in March and April have been returned or put in storage, spokeswoman Molly Sullivan, said in an e-mail. "The work crews have been given a clear directive on what is and is not able to be taken out of the buildings, and it does not include any 'historically significant artifacts.'"
When Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, learned that contractors hired to remove fixtures from one building had started gutting the structure, he said "We called the city, we called the newspapers. Even after that, there's continued looting. We're pretty angry about it."
Fine says, "The sidewalks are filled with broken glass. It's a tremendously disrespectful way to end the 100-year history of Michael Reese, disrespectful to the people who worked there, to the families who donated money so the Gropius buildings could be built. This is how Chicago wants to present itself to the world?"
It has been known for some time that Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius was connected to the master plan for several buildings at the Michael Reese site. Two years ago architectural student Grahm Balkany discovered that the 20th-century architectural pioneer was also actively involved in the design of at least eight buildings on the site.
"I knew Gropius' master plan was floating around out there, but I had no idea he had actually done buildings," says Balkany, then a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Gropius' name appears as a consultant on the project, but Balkany's research points to a greater contribution. "He even commented on paint colors," Balkany says. "He was more involved, heavily involved."
Tucked away on the South Side, the Gropius buildings are only blocks away from the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. Several buildings on that campus were designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gropius' friend and competitor, and a subsequent director of the Bauhaus, one of the most influential design schools of the 20th century.
Walter Gropius was actively involved in the construction of Michael Reese Hospital starting in 1945. The time period overlaps with Mies van der Rohe's tenure as director of the Architecture School at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
"Gropius' buildings are primary yellow brick, and it was chosen to harmonize with Mies' work," Balkany says. "He was very interested in harmonization."
Balkany has started the Gropius in Chicago Coalition to save Michael Reese Hospital.
"Modernism is coming of age, and it has a large following across the world," Balkany says. "This should be a living part of Chicago. It should contribute to prosperity."
Vincent Michael, director of the historic preservation program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Trustee for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, calls Balkany's research "very persuasive," adding that the buildings are "excellent examples of midcentury modernism. The near South Side is a rare place to have large campuses by both Mies and Gropius so close together and so intact."
The City Steps In
The city of Chicago has a contract to acquire the hospital site this year as a potential Olympic Village. When the $86 million purchase is finalized in July, the city intends to sell the property to a private developer. In April, the city issued a Request for Qualifications for demolition contactors to obliterate the entire campus.
It Takes a Village—and Money
An Olympic village is intended to house athletes as well as support facilities for contestants during the Paralympics. The city plans to sell the site to a private developer—if there are any willing to take on the project.
"In this economic climate it seems highly unlikely that many developers would have the interest--or the financial ability--to tackle such a huge and speculative project," says Chris Morris, program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Midwest Office, based in Chicago. "We should hold the City of Chicago to the same standard as we do other communities and developers, and demand that they demonstrate proof of financing for this project before they proceed with any demolition."
The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Midwest Office serves Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
However, according to Sullivan in the city's Community Development department, the original 1907 Prairie-style building designed by Schmidt, Garden & Martin will be preserved (despite its accidental addition to the city's request for proposals for demolition), but the rest of the 29-building campus is not "feasible to save," she says. "Our intention is to utilize the main Michael Reese building, but everything in addition to that, including the Gropius buildings, needs to be cleared from the area."
The host city for the 2016 Olympics will be announced on Oct. 2 this year, and the three competing candidates are Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, and Tokyo.
Landmarks Illinois, which has met with the city's 2016 committee, says it's "hopeful" that the buildings won't be torn down this summer, as was originally predicted. "It seems hasty to want to tear them down before [October]," says Jim Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois, which has fought for five years to preserve Michael Reese's 1907 main building. "Just take a little time to analyze whether these buildings have potential. ... In the meantime, we can work at some ideas about how they can be reused."
Last week Fine met with the Chicago 2016 committee to voice his group's concern about the preservation of the buildings. He urged the committee to consider repurposing the hospital buildings for "everything from workforce housing to assisted living to luxury housing," Fine says. However, he learned that the International Olympic Committee has strict parameters regarding village sites.
"The International Olympic Committee needs to change its policies so historic preservation is more of a focus," Fine says. The demolition is a "colossal waste," he says. "This is a lack of public process and an arrogance of using taxpayers' money to tear down historic and useful buildings."
Although the National Building Museum bestowed a 2009 honor award to Chicago—the first city to receive the commendation—just last month for its green initiatives, the Michael Reese situation raises questions about the city's commitment to sustainability. "The wholesale demolition of 29 buildings, many of which are in excellent condition and could easily be adapted for residential or retail purposes, is definitely not a sustainable or green approach," says Chris Morris, program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Midwest Office, based in Chicago. "The City should be looking at ways to adapt and highlight this incredible collection of modern architecture for the international audience that will be drawn to Chicago in 2016, not scraping the site clean and dumping the work of Walter Gropius in a landfill simply for the sake of expediency."
Just three decades ago, workers tore down a dense, thriving neighborhood to build Gropius' designs.
"It was a nice neighborhood," Peters says. "If it were still here, we'd probably be fighting to save those buildings from the Gropius ones. That's the irony of preservation."
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