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A Gem Cast Off Chicago's Architectural Crown

Posted: November 25, 2012

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Chicago loves its famous architecture, but the wrecking ball may soon take down one of the most unusual buildings in town — the Prentice Women's Hospital — designed by mid-century architect Bertrand Goldberg.

The Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago was named one of the 10 most endangered historic places in Illinois by the nonprofit group Landmarks Illinois.

The Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago was named one of the 10 most endangered historic places in Illinois by the nonprofit group Landmarks Illinois. Kiichiro Sato

Walk through downtown Chicago and you experience modern architecture to its fullest. There's the Auditorium Building by Louis Sullivan, the Federal Center by Mies van der Rohe and Marina City by Bertrand Goldberg — two towers made even more famous after starring on an album cover by the Chicago band Wilco.

Goldberg was a visionary and a social progressive; important enough that the Art Institute of Chicago gave him a major retrospective exhibition last year. One of his unique buildings is now in danger of being torn down.

On the north side of downtown Chicago, by the lake, stands Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital. Amid blocks of boxy buildings, this one is box on the bottom with what seems to be a concrete cloverleaf — four joined, stacked cylinders — springing up and out from a central stem, like a flower. Even the windows are curved.

"It's experimental, it's inventive, it's just beautiful and curvilinear," says Jeanne Gang, a MacArthur award-winning architect. "The material allows it to do that, because concrete is one of the few materials that will conform to a curve pretty easily without too many complaints. And I really like that."

Chicago's Architectural Legacy

Northwestern University, which owns Prentice, may like it, but not enough to save it. If Prentice falls, the hospital will meet the same fate as other Chicago buildings associated with such giants of modern architecture as van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.

Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, says city leaders should look to architecture as their brand.

"This is about whether or not Chicago is going to remain the first city of American architecture," Fine says, "and you don't remain the first city of American architecture by destroying your great buildings."

Several international organizations have sprung up to help preserve buildings like Prentice, including DOCOMOMO — for the documentation and conservation of the modern movement.

Gunny Harboe, who represents the group in Chicago, says that modern buildings can be important without being pretty.

"One has to look at it in its much broader context, of what does this building represent of its time; what does it say to us today about that time; and how do we use that as way of telling the story about who we are as a society?" Harboe says.

Designed For Health Care, Not Research

Goldberg, who died in 1997, designed Prentice with an eye to improving health care. The building is round with a central core to give better sight lines and closer care from the central nursing station. A hospital, however, is not what Northwestern University needs there, says spokesman Al Cubbage. He says the school's primary missions are research and teaching.

"The research that would be done in our new building is research into things like cancer ... [and] AIDS," Cubbage says.

Cubbage says there are empty lots right around old Prentice, but the new building must connect directly to the school's existing research facilities. Cubbage says Northwestern looked into repurposing the old building and determined it wouldn't work.

"When it's complete, the new facility is going to employ some 2,000 people in high-paying permanent jobs in the city of Chicago," he says.

Architecture Lovers Vs. The City Of Big Shoulders

Based on comments in newspapers, Chicagoans prefer new jobs to old concrete buildings. On the other side of the debate, some of the world's best-known architects, including Pritzker Architecture Prize winners, have come out in favor of preserving Goldberg's concrete curio. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is even pursuing legal means.

The man who could probably get Prentice a stay of execution, however, is Mayor Rahm Emanuel — and he supports Northwestern's plan. In Chicago, that usually means the debate is over.

"Will I personally be sad? Yes," Preservation Chicago's Fine says. "But I think the bigger reaction would be what a horrible piece of vandalism that has befallen the city of Chicago."

Northwestern says it will hold an international design competition to make sure the building that replaces old Prentice Hospital is a piece of "world-class" architecture. Preservationists say they already have one.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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