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Photo courtesy Landmarks Illinois

Chicago's historic Prentice Women's Hospital was designed by modern architect Bertrand Goldberg.

Historic Prentice building one step closer to demolition

by Robyn Murray
Feb 12, 2013

The historic Prentice Women’s Hospital is one step closer to demolition.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted Thursday to reject landmark status for the building after a lengthy battle that pitted the city and Northwestern University against preservationists and architects.

A lawsuit against the landmarks commission is still pending, but Northwestern, which owns the downtown building, is nearing clearance for demolition. The university has long held that the former women’s hospital, which is currently vacant, is not suitable for what the university needs, namely a high-tech biomedical research lab.

“The key thing, obviously, is it enables us to do more important, life-saving research,” said Alan Cubbage, a spokesman for the university. Northwestern plans to demolish the structure and create a new facility to further its research on cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, he said.

“Diseases that kill people,” he said.

But preservationists have argued the building’s historic significance also needs to be protected.

Designed by modern architect Bertrand Goldberg, the Prentice has been lauded for its innovative use of structural space. The 1975 cloverleaf-shaped building created a community feel in the former hospital, and allowed for clear, open space uninterrupted by columns.

“The point always was there’s a solution, it’s doable,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois, a statewide preservation group, which has fought for Prentice to be saved and reused.

DiChiera’s group presented several ideas for adaptive reuse of the building, but she said Northwestern would not adequately consider the proposals without pressure from the landmarks commission.

“Now that the decision’s been made not to landmark – why should they go to the bother?” she said.

Cubbage said the proposals were looked at “very, very carefully,” but were ultimately not suitable.

“There’s a difference of opinion in what Northwestern needs,” Cubbage said, “and it is our belief that we’ve got a pretty good handle on what Northwestern needs.”

But support for the preservation of the building is unlikely to fade quietly. A letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in November included more than 80 architects petitioning the city to save the building.

“Sometimes we take for granted what’s right in front of us,” said Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects in Chicago, which supported the petition.

Esposito said Prentice has architectural significance far beyond the borders of Chicago, and the decision to reject its landmark status calls into question the landmarks commission’s qualifications to make unbiased judgments.

“I’ve seen somewhat of an erosion of the faith many people in the preservation community have in the process that the landmarks commission undertakes and the responsibility they have,” he said.

Esposito noted the number of professional architects on the commission has declined in recent years.

But city spokesperson Peter Strazzabosco emphasized the commission went through two rounds of voting, first in November and again Feb. 7. “Nobody’s disputing that [Prentice is] not architecturally significant,” he said.

The commission’s final vote was based on the Department of Housing and Economic Development’s report, he said, which outlined the economic impact of demolition or reuse. “That said despite the fact that it meets the criteria [for landmark status], the economic ramifications are too great to preserve the building as an architectural landmark,” Strazzabosco said.

Northwestern estimates development of a new facility at the site will create 2,500 construction jobs, 2,000 full-time jobs and $400 million in annual economic impact.

Cubbage said while the court case is pending, there is no timeline for demolition. However, he added, “Our goal is to begin construction of a new building in 2015.” He said the university will hold an international competition to court architectural designs for the new facility.

Landmarks Illinois’ DiChiera said she’s not sure what more her group can do to save Prentice, and her disappointment was clear.

“Of course,” she said. “We’ve been fighting for this building for 10 years.”