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Last Gasp for Gropius?
City demolished first building at Bauhaus-inspired hospital campus
Demolition crews tearing down the Friends Convalence Home earlier this week.
Grahm Balkany/Courtesy Gropius in Chicago

While Chicago’s losing bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics was also seen as a major loss for the local architecture community, there was one small reason for celebration: Now that there was no pressing need for an Olympic Village, the Daley administration might delay or defer its plans for demolishing eight buildings designed by Walter Gropius at the Michael Reese hospital campus on the city’s South Side.

A photograph of the home from 1957.
Hedrich Blessing/Courtesy Gropius in chicago
A photograph from this summer.
David Schalliol/Courtesy Gropius in chicago

No sooner did that celebration begin, though, than it became a wake. On Sunday, demolition crews began tearing down the Friends Convalescent Home, the first structure to be lost on the site. Asbestos abatement, which has kept the 28 buildings on the 37-acre campus standing months longer than expected, continues in those that remain, and while no others will be demolished immediately, they are expected to be gone by year’s end.

Though the demolition has been feared for some time, preservationists are dismayed because the city has no concrete plans for redevelopment in place. The Daley administration defends its decision as a prudent action to make way for a request for qualifications expected next year, and that maintaining the Gropius buildings could cost millions of dollars per year with no clear reuse in place.

“It’s not viable for us,” said Molly Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Development. “People are saying we should save these buildings for later, but nobody’s told us they want them. In the meantime, we have to be responsible to the taxpayers.”

The city has made the concession of saving the Singer Pavillion, which James Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois, called no small feat. “I’m not being an apologist for them, but just talking to people inside, there are lots of reasons to do this, and they’ve found them, and they’re using them,” Peters said, noting that many of the other buildings are too small to easily reuse or have been considerably altered. “That said, do those things warrant demolition? No, but they’re difficult forces to overcome.”

The demolition has struck many as inexplicable, given the lack of future plans. “The unanswered questions will go on here,” said Graham Balkany, director of the preservation group Gropius in Chicago. “The real why is why we have complete political ineptitude.”

Preservationists had hoped to save the power station, which is located off-site, but the building was deemed more valuable salvaged than intact.
Courtesy Lynn Becker

But in many ways, the demolition exists in-and-of itself. While the plans for the Olympic Village at the Reese campus were announced in July 2009, when the city proposed purchasing the hospital grounds, Peters said the first real death knell did not come until this summer, when the demolition contracts were signed. At $20 million, those contracts are about the only demolition work in the city, given the economy. As an added incentive, the demolition crews are entitled to salvage what they can, making many buildings more valuable as scrap than as real estate. Furthermore, MedLife, the former owner of the Reese Campus, agreed to pay for the demolition, creating something few politicians can resist: free money.

And the sale is partly what created the problems in the first place. The Daley administration paid $89 million at the height of the market, which looks especially generous now for huge swath of South Side real estate. Critics point to Block 37, located within the far more desirable Loop that sat vacant nonetheless for two decades.

Preservationists have tried to rally support, but the public remains indifferent to what is seen as undistinguished modernist buildings. “It’s hard to capture for the public because it’s not happening in front of them,” Peters said. “It’s an inward-facing campus you maybe see the backs of when you’re flying by in a car on Lakeshore Drive.”

Now that the Gropius buildings have finally begun to fall , the world has taken note. Balkany points out that the Sun-Times normally patrician real estate columnist David Roeder even called for the bulldozers to stop. Could this be the final stroke of luck to save those buildings that remain? Probably not.

“We just don’t know what it would take,” Balkany said. “Logic ought to prevail. There are 101 reasons they ought not to do this and no rational reasons they should. But I’m afraid that’s not the case.”

Matt Chaban