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Groping for Alternatives
Preservationists offer proposals to save Gropius campus from Chicago's Olympic village
A rendering of Landmarks Illinois's proposal for the Olympic Village, which includes five Walter Gropius buildings. Click here to view larger.
Courtesy Landmarks Illinois

In July, city officials agreed to delay their plans to demolish the Michael Reese hospital campus, which would serve as the site of the Olympic Village should the city win its bid to host the 2016 games. The demolition, officials said, was being delayed to address abatement issues on the site, and had nothing to do with a groundswell of concern from preservationists over the destruction of a 37-acre campus planned by Walter Gropius.

Some feared a premature demolition could jeopardize Chicago’s chances of securing the bid, especially if the outcry grew loud enough. But the delay has also given advocates an opportunity to put forward their own alternative plans challenging the need to demolish some or all of the dozen or so buildings that Gropius is believed to have helped design, as well as major pieces of the landscapes created by Lester Collins, Hideo Sasaki, and Paul Novak, along with the Gropius site plan itself, which is arguably his most important contribution to the Reese campus.

The Landmarks Illinois site plan (left; click to enlarge) returns the street grid to the Gropius campus (right).

On August 13, Landmarks Illinois released its proposal, which seeks to preserve five of Gropiuss original buildings, including four clustered in the heart of the campus that are seen as a particularly effective ensemble. New housing and other services are then wrapped around these buildings, stretching from 26th to 31st streets.

The Main building, designed by Schmidt, Garden, and Martin and the one being preserved in SOM's plan.
The Kaplan pavilion
The Friend Convalescent home
COURTESY Landmarks illinois; Grahm Balkany 
"We started by preserving everything, and then we started to figure out how we could make that work with the Olympic Villagees needs," said James Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois. "We realized the whole site plan is the most significant part here. So we tried to save that as much as we tried to save any one building. And we didnnt want to just save some buildings, we want to save the relationship of the buildings. Thatts the significance of the new plan, and what we keep coming back to."

The plan also calls for reincorporating the street grid, which Peters acknowledges undercuts the Gropius plan somewhat, but it also creates a more livable, urbane layout that will better serve the city after the games. It is a departure from the official plan for the village, which was developed by SOM and contains rows of squat, 12-story housing units between 29th and 31st streets with a large plaza north of there, an arrangement that has been widely panned in local architectural circles.

Another plan, proposed by the group Gropius in Chicago Coalition but still in development, goes even further, saving all 11 buildings of the 28 on the Michael Reese campus that it says Gropius had a hand in designing. Those buildings are located on the southeastern section of the campus, and like the Landmarks Illinois plan, Gropius in Chicagoos would place housing to the north and west.

"The Landmarks Illinois plan is a good step forward, but we obviously cannt endorse a plan that includes demolition," said coalition founder Grahm Balkany. "We think there's a place for a plan that retains all the Gropius buildings and the majority of the plan."

It may not matter, though, because the city is sticking by SOM's plan. "We are actually not considering alternative plans because we have received very positive feedback for our plans from the Olympic committee", said Cassandra Francis, director of Olympic Village development at Chicago 2016. " If we do get the games, there is no room for preservation because we wouldnnt have Gropius buildings within the plan." Francis stressed that the bid was not ignoring preservation, as it went to great lengths to incorporate the hospital's Main Building, designed by Schmidt, Garden, and Martin and completed in 1880.

And yet the city is not exactly sticking to SOM's plan, either, as the firm has said many times that its plan is only a rough sketch and nothing is final, including their involvement. “We did the planning on the village, and it’s not a guarantee that it will be our project if Chicago wins the bid,” said Jennifer Thomas, a spokesperson in the firm’s Chicago office.

The city’s insistence on adhering to SOM’s plan and demolishing the site could then be a result of preservationist’s worst fears, that the Reese campus is doomed no matter what because the city wants to use the land for real estate development, as AN reported in June.

But Francis said the city’s plans remain open. “If we don’t get the games, it would be up to the city as to how to proceed,” she said.

Matt Chaban