An unassuming storage shed on the IIT campus was for decades ignored until plans for its demolition and replacement by a new train station stirred controversy. Suddenly, preservationists determined it was an unrecognized work of Mies van der Rohe and well worth saving; others claimed that the station was more important for the public good and the Mies building a throwaway.
Whatever the merits of either argument, there are bigger preservation fights in the offing: namely, Walter Gropius’ Michael Reese Hospital campus.
Photos By Grahm Balkany
On June 1, the city took control of the 37-acre campus with its 28 buildings all either planned or designed by Gropius, buying it for $86 million as part of the hospital’s bankruptcy proceedings, with plans to bulldoze the site so it can be redeveloped privately into an Olympic village as part of the city’s hopeful bid for the 2016 summer games. Preservationists are dismayed by what they feel is a callous attitude toward an historically important swath of Chicago’s urban fabric.
The two proposals also suggest a deeper unease in Chicago, and across the nation, about the difficulty of overcoming public indifference to midcentury modern architecture. “As someone once told me, it’s old enough to depreciate, but it’s not old enough to appreciate,” said James Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois. Peters listed a number of other architecturally significant but low-profile works that were recently demolished to further his point, including three separate hospital buildings designed by Bertrand Goldberg and a piece of the Great Lakes Naval Base designed by SOM.
Apparently, little or no thought was given to saving these architecturally significant sites. Representatives from both Metra and Chicago 2016 deferred to SOM, both the designer of the station and the master-planner for the Olympic bid. “This is the footprint we were given,” said Molly Sullivan, communications director for the city’s Department of Community Development, about plans for the Reese campus. “This was the decision of our designers.” SOM declined to comment.
On the Michael Reese campus, this means the demolition of 28 buildings, eight designed by Gropius, with signature ribbon windows and rectilinear brick massing, along with significant landscapes by Lester Collins, Hideo Sasaki, and Paul Novak. Many of the buildings have been abandoned for years, and the hospital, following its September bankruptcy, has begun stripping buildings for resale to help pay down its $100 million debt. “There are original Herman Miller chairs, significant fixtures, and sculptures, all lost or vandalized,” Peters said.
Critics suspect that the city needs to recoup the boom-time price it paid for the site, something that partial or wholesale preservation could compromise. To ensure a timely demolition—a contractor for the work was announced June 9—the city appears to be using the Olympics as a cudgel to forge ahead without due oversight.
“How can they even consider demolishing these important buildings before they know they’ve won the bid?” said Grahm Balkany, founder of Gropius in Chicago Coalition, a group that is seeking to create a Bauhaus district around the campus.
Sullivan insists this is not the case: “There’s clearly a difference of opinion on adaptive reuse. The timeline is, we need to be ready when the bid comes in, which means demolishing the Reese site so it is ready for redevelopment. It’s a very strict timeline.” She also chastised preservationists for suggesting the city was in any way misusing the Olympics to demolish an important site. “This is not a land grab,” she said.
The city must also wait for a ruling from the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board this summer, which must sign off on the closure of any hospital. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has indicated it may raise issues with the proposed demolition, but for now, it is withholding judgment.
As for the Mies building at IIT, the preservation agency was less charitable. Ruling that it lacked significant historic fabric—”It had integrity issues,” Anthony Rubano, a project designer at the agency, told AN—Metra decided to demolish the building, which is used for storage. “We asked the IHPA to tell us whether or not we should proceed, and based on their experience, they saw no issue with it,” said Michael Gillis, a Metra spokesman. The benefits of a new station not only for the school but also Cellular Field and burgeoning local development were seen to outweigh preservation.
It is a decision that has incensed preservationists because the station will not even occupy the site, but instead rise behind it, with a plaza where the building now stands. There had been calls to reuse the building as a bike shed or bathrooms, but they fell on deaf ears. “As usual, they made the expedient decision, they took the easy way out,” said Jonathan Fine, executive director for Preservation Chicago.
“Nobody gets it,” Fine added. “They see simple lines and brick boxes. Because it’s not dripping terra cotta, they figure, ‘Why save it?’ It’s our job to educate the public so they understand why.”