Efforts to salvage what remains of Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital flatlined on Friday when the National Park Service declined to add the Walter Gropius–designed campus to the National Register of Historic Places. With demolition continuing and a number of buildings—including half of Gropius’ eight—already razed, the park service said the former 28-building campus could not be listed because it was essentially being asked to protect what is no longer there.
The troubles began in June, when the Daley administration announced its plans to turn the 37-acre campus on the Near South Side into the Olympic Village for its bid to win the 2016 summer games. When Chicago lost its bid, the city decided to demolish the campus anyway, despite no concrete plans for its redevelopment. Throughout, Grahm Balkany, executive director of the Gropius in Chicago Coalition, had been furtively working on a register application, which was unanimously approved by the state preservation agency on December 4. But by the time it got to the parks service 10 days later, the application, as well as the site, was a shadow of its former self.
A letter from the parks service published on Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin’s blog explains its rationale: “After the nomination was written, but before it was reviewed by the Illinois review board, a number of buildings were demolished, but the nomination documentation had not been changed to reflect the loss of these buildings and the impact of the loss on the district’s eligibility. … A property cannot be listed in the National Register on the basis of documentation that does not accurately represent the property.”
The application is technically still open, having been returned to the state for revision and resubmission. Balkany said that would be a waste of time, though, because the Daley administration is allowed 30 days to comment on any register application, as is the case nationwide. But because the city is also in charge of demolition at the Reese campus, it can ensure sufficient demolition work takes place to yet again invalidate any new application. “Because Chicago is the culprit as well as the certifying local government, they can go in and do whatever they want and we’re basically screwed,” Balkany said.
Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner of the Commission of Chicago Landmarks, declined to comment on Balkany’s allegations. “We’re just purely advisory,” he said.
Even if preservationists had prevailed in securing a spot on the register, there is no guarantee it would have kept the city from continuing its demolition. Preservationists had hoped the register listing would provide another round of attention and scrutiny, as well as the opportunity to obtain tax credits for the reuse of the buildings. But Balkany has resigned himself to defeat. “We’re drained, and it feels like the system failed us,” he said.