Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Is the Fix In? Don't let it stand. Rally today for Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital, as National Trust names it one of its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America - the two faces of Preservation in Chicago

Today, June 15th, there will be a rally to express support for saving Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital, 11:00 a.m. at McClurg and Huron. (see map here.) Organizers are urging supporters to "Arrive no later than 10:45. Wear your 'Save Prentice' t-shirts, bring signs to show your support, and tweet from the Rally using #SavePrentice." You can also add your name to the petition to save Prentice - and to pass it on to others - here.

On Thursday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that Prentice Hospital has been named to its 2011 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
“The boldly imaginative Prentice Women’s Hospital is one of the most distinctive buildings in a city world-famous for its rich architecture,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It is irreplaceable and landmark-worthy, but like many buildings of the recent past, Prentice Women’s Hospital is not appreciated and protected. Retention of the building—rather than demolition—provides a sustainable and economically viable future for a striking structure with decades of useful life ahead.”
click images for larger view
For much of this year, the discussion about architecture in Chicago has been dominated by Northwestern's stated intent to destroy Bertrand Goldberg's iconic Prentice Hospital and replace it with a vacant lot.

Then, suddenly at the end of April, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks deftly pushed the debate on Prentice aside by proposing to landmark the 1928 Art Deco Chicago Motor Club Building (shown to the left in the photo at the top of this post) on Wacker just west of Michigan Avenue, abetted by Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who sniffed . . . "historic preservationists do not appear to be concerned about the building", apparently unaware that Preservation Chicago had named the Motor Club as one of it's "Chicago 7" most endangered buildings all the way back in 2009.  Four days later, Kamin would report that the only reason the building hadn't landed on Landmarks Illinois latest list of the 2011 most endangered historic places in Illinois was that the Landmarks Commission had told the group that it was already working on it; there was no need to have the Motor Club on the list.
To be sure, the Motor Club is an absolutely wonderful building, as superbly presented in another crackerjack report by Landmarks staff Heidi Sperry, Terry Tatum, Mike Crawford, Lisa Napoles, and Nikki Ricks, edited by departing Landmarks head Brian Goeken.  The report's compelling advocacy is achieved through an impressive work of scholarship, combining history, analysis and documentation, richly illustrated with current and historic photos and illustrations.  Download the report here.

The Chicago Motor Club building, a structure no developer has rushed to acquire, goes up for auction on June 23rd, with a suggested minimum bid of only $500,000.  We don't know the winning bidder, or whether their intention would have been to rehab the Motor Club or demolish it, so landmark protection is a good thing.  But the bottom line is this:  as the Commission itself acknowledged, there is no immediate threat to this building.  No one has proposed demolishing it, or filed for a permit to do so.

All the publicity for the Motor Club, however, did its job: edging to the sidelines the battle for Prentice, a building that IS in immediate danger, whose owner has been very clear in stating their intention to demolish it.
Flash forward one month.  Another surprise.  With little advance notice, preliminary landmark designation for Prentice suddenly appeared on the Landmarks Commission June agenda. Finally, the chance everyone was waiting for.  Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago, docomomo, and an impressive roster of other preservation groups quickly rallied to appear at the meeting to testify as to Prentice's central importance and demonstrate the breadth of support for saving it.

And, just as quickly, it all disappeared.  The morning of the meeting, Prentice was removed from the agenda and "deferred."  Blair Kamin quoted Northwestern University's Ron Nayler as saying "It just requires further discussion with the city."

And that's how power and landmarking intersect in Chicago.  If you're a poor schmo who doesn't want his or her house in a landmark district, or an unknown developer-to-be-named later picking up an unwanted building at auction, the Landmarks Commission is brave and unyielding.  If you're a clouted powerhouse like Northwestern, you can simply make agenda items disappear, taking everything behind closed doors, where transparency and democracy go to die.
And so the fix is in.  42nd ward alderman Brendan Reilly, who was instrumental in the battle to keep the Children's Museum out of Grant Park and saving the Lake Shore Athletic Club, prominently announced back in April that he had negotiated with Northwestern a 60-day moratorium in their filing for a demolition permit for Prentice.  Since then, he's become the invisible man.  There's been no updates on Prentice in his email reports to constituents, and the sentence "42nd ward alderman Brendan Reilly was unavailable for comment" has become almost boilerplate on news reports on the ongoing battle for Prentice.

Reilly is one of Chicago's best alderman.  He is also ambitious.  Has he decided that to advance politically, it would be better not having powerful Northwestern as an enemy?  Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has also taken no position on saving Prentice. 

I would love to be proven wrong, to have a press conference pop out of the blue in which Northwestern and the City announce a compromise that will save Prentice.  Realistically, however, in Chicago, clout city, the kind of omerta now in place usually means the fix is in.

The most egregious demonstration of the dark side of preservation in Chicago can be found a few miles south of Prentice, at the site once occupied by the Michael Reese Hospital complex.  Back in 2009, architect Grahm Balkany staged a herculean effort to document and save the Bauhaus-inspired buildings at Reese designed with the collaboration of Walter Gropius.  Did the Landmarks Commission embrace Balkany's incredible scholarship?  They did not.   When a proposal for saving the important Reese buildings was presented to them, the Landmarks Commission only response was to critique its imprecisions.  Their incuriosity was absolute.  They lifted not a finger to consider the importance of these irreplaceable structures.

What could justify such dereliction?  Only this: mayor/municipal monarch Richard M. Daley lusted after the site for his pipedream of a 2016 Olympics.  And when the Olympics evaporated into the mist, he still rushed through the demolition of all buildings on the campus save two, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars. For what?  For nothing.  For a wasted plain as testimony to his arbitrary and absolute power.
But he wasn't done.  In an act of unbridled cynicism, the Daley administration pledged to save the handsome and historic 1907 Schmidt, Garden Michael Reese main building.  And then they let it rot.  They did nothing to secure the building as it was assaulted by rain and trashed by squatters.  Part of the roof caved in. Little more than a year later, the city announced, as if it were an act of fate rather than their own negligence, that they now had no choice but to demolish the building, at cost of a few more millions.  Michael Reese is the new Block 37.
And they still weren't done.  Early in May, I received a frustrated email from Eric Nordstrom of Urban Remains. " . . . so tragic. so angry. city and/or wrecking company will not let me salvage any of the ornament. the terra cotta lions . ..
 . . . destroyed daily. the amazing sullivanesque panel . . .

- destroyed!"
This is same kind of civic nihilism Northwestern has in mind for Prentice.  They will demolish it, and leave an empty lot behind.  There will be no new building anytime soon.  Last November, Crain's Chicago Business reported Northwestern Hospital lost $186 million in 2009.  And it's not like Northwestern is short of places to expand.  It's already doing massive land-banking in the area, including a huge two-square-block site just across the street from Prentice that's been an empty gravel yard since the demolition of Lakeside Veterans Hospital two years ago.
No, Northwestern wants to annihilate Prentice, quickly, because it terminates the argument.  It precludes the prospect of more and more Chicagoans becoming familiar with Prentice, appreciating its architectural importance. its keystone role in the city's urban fabric, and joining the fight against demolition.  At Prentice, Bertrand Goldberg proved that hospitals and great architecture can be one.  Like Richard M. Daley at Michael Reese, Northwestern wants to destroy the evidence.


2 b or not 2 b said...

Reilly is one of Chicago's best aldermen?

That's damning with faint praise.

He's a Mike Madigan protege with delusions of grandeur.

He did stand up to Northwestern on the Athletic Club building. We'll see what happens here.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why people are so high on that building. It's really not that great. And have you ever been inside it? It's not really a viable hospital space anymore.