Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Big Con Closes: Northwestern Wins the Battle to Destroy Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital

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 Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois moved for a voluntary dismissal of their complaint in Cook County Circuit Court, signaling the end of their legal challenge against the City of Chicago and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. 
At the end, even the members of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks were coming to the realize they were just part of a scam.  “I have this suspicion,” said commissioner James Houlihan, “that Northwestern has placed before us a false question.”

The false question at the bottom of Northwestern University's Big Con was simply this:  that there were two - and only two - choices.  One, you could have a new billion dollar research lab, state-of-the-art science, thousands of jobs, and countless lives saved.  Or, you stop Northwestern from demolishing Bertrand Goldberg's landmark Prentice Hospital, and find all of that  - the billion dollars, the jobs, the science, the healed lives - “melted into air, into thin air.”

Or at least that's what Northwestern's Eugene Sunshine told Houlihan when he asked what the university would do if Goldberg's building were landmarked.  “We don't really have an alternative,” was Sunshine's reply.  That's right.  One of the most distinguished institutions of learning in the world, home to cutting edge research and some of the most brilliant people on the globe, just couldn't figure out a way to keep from demolishing Prentice to create a vacant lot across from another massive two-block lot that's been vacant for five years.  When it came to finding an alternative to wrecking Prentice, all that brain power turned to quivering jello.
Hard to believe, no?  Well here's the thing.  It's not important that you believe; it's only important to appear to believe, and act accordingly. The only true catechism was acceptance of Northwestern's position atop the foodchain of clout, and a droit du seigneur that can never be questioned, only rationalized. 

Seigneur to seignuer, this is the world which Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel inhabits and understands, so it's no surprise he found himself, almost as soon as he was inaugurated, counseling Northwestern on how to mount the kind of clever PR campaign that would provide cover to its actions.  When that campaign finally bubbled to maturity, Rahm went public with a thumbs-down  op-ed in the Tribune, and the game was over.

But not before the Save Prentice Coalition mounted one of the most active and creative public interest campaigns I have ever witnessed.  Yes, I know - the patient died, but the coalition kept Prentice's heartbeat going long after Rahm's heavy pillow would have sent it flatlining.  All recognition is due to the coalition's partners, including Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, AIA/Chicago, DoCoMoMo Midwest, The Chicago Architectural Club, and more, and to individuals such as Lisa DiChiera, Christina Morris, Jonathan Fine, Stacey Pfingsten, Gunny Harboe, Jim Peters, Eric Herman, Zurich Esposito, Brian Strawn, Karla Sierralta, Bonnie McDonald and so many others.

Lest this appreciation, given the final outcome, seem little more than sentimentality, we should keep in mind that Save Prentice did achieve: creating a textbook model of how to run a public advocacy campaign.   It appealed to excellence, in the way it brought many of the world's leading architects to lend their voice to saving Prentice.  It appealed to creativity and practicality, in how it enlisted the best of both established and young architects and engineers to come up with a dazzling array of compelling, thoroughly-researched alternatives in which Northwestern's needs could be met while preserving Prentice.  They went to court and got a judge to question whether the way the Landmarks Commission signed off on destroying Prentice really met legal standards of due process.  (When they lost, it was not the the merits, but matters of jurisdiction.)  They found a capable partner in ASKG Public Strategies, and engaged social media in a creative and compelling way.  They encouraged and organized a broad range and expert and citizen testimony at public hearings whose results had already been pre-scripted.
Even if Save Prentice was not successful in its ultimate goal of keeping an indispensable piece of Chicago's architectural legacy in place for future generations, it revealed clearly the mendacity beneath so much of Northwestern's efforts, and it set a new standard for advocacy in the architectural preservation realm.

Every few decades, Chicago allows the powerful and connected to destroy a great masterpiece - the Garrick Theater, The Stock Exchange, and now Prentice.  Every time we say, “We won't let this happen again.” and each time, we've been proven wrong.  The Save Prentice coalition has built a strong foundation that makes it more likely that the next time may be different.  And that is no small thing.

Read the full coalition statement after the break:

Statement from Save Prentice Coalition

Chicago – February 14, 2013 – Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois moved for a voluntary dismissal of their complaint in Cook County Circuit Court, signaling the end of their legal challenge against the City of Chicago and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The Save Prentice Coalition issued the following statement:

Only months ago, it was uncertain whether the landmark status of historic Prentice Women’s Hospital would be considered in a public forum. Thousands of people in Chicago and around the globe helped bring the conversation about Bertrand Goldberg’s Modern masterpiece to Chicago’s Landmarks Commission, which unanimously declared Prentice worthy of landmark designation.

We continue to believe there were significant flaws with the process that granted and then removed landmark protection for Prentice. However, we feel that the landmarks process has run its course. When challenging issues come before the Landmarks Commission, all parties share an obligation to provide honest input, consider reuse alternatives and respect the ordinances and procedures. We continue to support the practical reuse options available to Northwestern University that will grow Chicago’s economy and preserve its world-class architectural and cultural heritage.

At its core, preservation helps cities grow and prosper. It creates jobs, boosts local economies, helps reduce our carbon footprint, and makes cities more dynamic, appealing and attractive. Members of the Save Prentice Coalition have a long history of working in partnership with the City of Chicago on a wide range of preservation issues, and we look forward to continuing this work.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your unflagging support of preservation and Modernism, Mr. Becker.

Jenna Rae - IIT M.Arch Student said...

It's funny, I ask what supports preservation efforts in my latest blog post:
and it seems public outcry doesn't matter if politics and money are leaning the other way. I'd be curious as to what you have to say about this.

Meta Brown said...

Lynn, the points you have made are important, and, as always, you have expressed them beautifully.

May I add one more point? The process doesn't always fail us.

Many of the same organizations who have been involved in the effort to save Prentice also supported the successful campaign to prevent the city from allowing The Chicago Children's Museum to build in Grant Park. Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois and The National Trust for Historic Preservation were all involved. Their support, and the efforts of many individuals, were absolutely vital to to preserving Grant Park. Preservation Chicago's involvement was a key factor in the preservation of the old Cook County Hospital building. We could point out many more small wins.

We don't win them all, yet we must keep up the fight.