The Pitfalls of Preserving Architecture

At one point, the Brown Line of the Chicago “L” had numerous ads urging riders to do something to save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which used to be part of Northwestern Memorial. This bothered me for the following reasons:

1). Northwestern said that they can’t use the building.
2). There are other Goldberg buildings or Goldberg-inspired buildings in Chicago that look very similar.
3). The new Rush University Medical Center looks like a nicer, greener version of the old Prentice.
4). I never saw any sort of ad campaign pushing for Michael Reese Hospital to be saved.

The fourth point I list needs a bit of background. When I moved to Chicago in 2009, after Michael Reese Hospital had finished completely closing, it had been decided that the site would become an Olympic Village if Chicago got to host the 2016 Olympics. Of course, Chicago did not get to host the 2016 Olympics. Prior to that, someone could have said, “Why bulldoze this old hospital when you could build it elsewhere? Isn’t this an architectural asset to the city?”

And no one seems to have done so.

The Michael Reese Hospital campus was a mixture of classical architecture and more modern architecture. Part of the campus was designed by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School. (One of the buildings can be found on Flickr.) The Bauhaus school believed very much in less being more and experimenting.

Then again, my argument that I applied to the old Prentice Hospital could be applied to Michael Reese. After the closure of the Bauhaus School, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe left Germany in 1937 and relocated to America and eventually came to Chicago. While in America, Van Der Rohe designed several buildings in Chicago including the chapel, Alumni Hall and Crown Hall of the IIT campus, the IBM Plaza, the Loop post office and 860-880 Lake Shore Drive. The argument can be made that since there are plenty of buildings designed by Mies Van Der Rohe, Chicago didn’t need to save Gropius’ buildings.

The difference is that the Michael Reese campus had a combination of two different architecture styles that you don’t see outside of the UIC Campus, and the brutalist buildings are separated from the Beaux Arts buildings by several blocks. Often the combination of two different architectural styles happens on accident, but it managed to work with the Michael Reese Campus.

But then the question comes in about what would have happened if the buildings had been saved. Would it have sat empty for years? A possible problem with preservation of architecture is that the future use seems to be forgotten. One of my favorite buildings in Chicago, Cook County Hospital, was saved from demolition. However, the Cook County Hospital sits empty on Harrison Street, continuing to decay because the county has no money to do anything with it. A long abandoned hospital in my neighborhood has sat empty for years and preservationists want to save it. Currently, it apparently is posing a safety risk to residents, based on emails from my alderman, and creeps me out every time I go down Montrose.

On a different note, Edgewater Medical Center, which no one is clamoring to save, has sat empty for 11 years while it’s debated as to what should happen to the site. One group, which I met at Midsommarfest, would like for it to be turned into a park. Others would like condos. This argument has been going on since I moved to Chicago.

Perhaps Prentice should be saved. But if it weren’t demolished, what would be done with the hospital? Would it just sit empty like Cook County Hospital and Edgewater Medical Center? In the meantime, the question remains as to what makes the hospital worth saving. Is it because it was designed by Goldberg? Or is it because of how Goldberg designed it?

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