A six-hour meeting to decide the fate of Bertrand Goldberg’s Old Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago ultimately denied the building landmark status, voting to recognize its merits for preservation and then withholding protection from demolition.
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After months of pleas for a hearing before the commission, a coalition of those in favor of preserving Prentice were surprised to learn the agenda that they had fought so long to realize also contained an apparent out for political expediency. The agenda included a second vote following the decision to grant preliminary landmark status that would rescind the commission’s own vote to protect Prentice — a mechanism Preservation Chicago’s John Fine said was unprecedented in the body’s recent history.
“This rigged proceeding,” Fine said at a press conference held the morning of the commission meeting, “is denying Prentice its so-called day in court.” The fix was in two days prior, however, according to many in the Save Prentice Coalition. In a move that many deemed a veritable death knell, Mayor Rahm Emanuel voiced his support for demolition in a Chicago Tribune op-ed on the same day the commission agreed to hear Prentice’s case. Landmarks commissioners are appointed by the mayor.
Nonetheless preservationists turned out in droves, forcing the commission’s meeting to move to City Council chambers. The commission’s own report detailed the building's merits, anticipating their 9-0 recommendation for landmark status. In the nearly two hours of public comment that transpired between the commission’s report and their initial vote, a parade of architects and preservationists came to praise architect Bertrand Goldberg’s design and challenge the prevailing notion that saving old Prentice precluded any new construction by owner Northwestern University on the site or nearby.
“Other cities will follow your lead,” said Bertrand Goldberg’s son, architect Geoff Goldberg. “The stain [of demolition] will run long and deep. It will last.” More than 65 architects, including Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang, signed an open letter in July that called on City Hall to preserve the iconic structure. The Save Prentice coalition later delivered a petition with more than 3,500 signatures to Emanuel’s offices.
Not everyone with a design background sided with preservation. Representatives from Goettsch Partners, HOK, and Thornton+Tomasetti cited structural concerns and said Prentice did not stand out among Goldberg’s work. Andrew Mooney, the city’s commissioner of Housing and Economic Development, argued new construction would bring jobs and research dollars that outweighed the importance of preserving Prentice.
The majority speaking in favor of demolition, though, put the debate in no uncertain terms, pitting “nostalgia for an intriguing architectural example” against “saving lives and economic recovery.” Northwestern hopes to build a new medical research center on the site. The university has dismissed reuse studies as infeasible, citing stringent technical requirements for use as an active laboratory.
Preservationists pointed to Northwestern’s massive real estate portfolio — by some accounts 44 percent of the Streeterville neighborhood, including an empty lot across the street from Prentice — and accused the University of presenting a false choice between medical advancement and economic development on one hand and architectural heritage on the other.
Landmarks commission chairman Rafael Leon took offense to that notion. “This is about a building,” Leon said. “We are all in favor of preserving lives.” But, he said at the meeting’s conclusion, just because a building meets the commission’s criteria for landmark designation does not mean it warrants it. City ordinance prevents commissioners from explicitly considering economic concerns in evaluating their criteria for preservation, but it does allow for consideration within a “larger framework” of civic issues.
There was just one holdout on the critical vote to revoke the commission’s earlier recommendation for landmark status — commissioner Christopher Reed. Afterwards Reed said the process reminded him of losing Michael Reese Hospital, a south side modernist and Prairie-style complex designed by the likes of Walter Gropius and Hideo Sasaki among others. Mayor Richard M. Daley rushed plans for that site through a hasty process that stymied public comment.