Reese Smashed to Pieces

Reese Smashed to Pieces

The original Michael Reese hospital building, once deemed a keeper, is now due for demolition.
Michael Allen

It’s finally time to say goodbye to Michael Reese Hospital once and for all. Yesterday, Chicago city officials announced their intention to renege on a promise to preserve the hospital’s historic main building. This comes after nearly two years of back and forth over the 28-building campus, including the demolition of several buildings designed by famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. “We’re disappointed but not surprised,” said Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “Unfortunately, there was no true commitment. Everything they told us was obviously a bunch of hot air.”

The dispute began when Chicago purchased the bankrupt hospital’s 37-acre campus on the Near South Side, intending to demolish the existing structures as part of its 2016 Olympic bid. Preservationists reacted quickly, hoping to save eight buildings co-designed by Gropius, as well as landscape architecture by Hideo Sasaki, and preserve the spirit of Gropius’ 1946 master plan. The city moved swiftly, however, demolishing half of Gropius’ buildings before any application could reach the National Register of Historic Places.

Chicago lost the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro, but opted to pursue development of the site. Officials had promised to preserve the hospital’s main building, a Chicago Style edifice designed by Schmidt, Garden and Martin and completed in 1880. But following safety inspections, the Public Building Commission (PBC) decided to raze the 103-year-old building rather than spend the $13.2 million needed for repairs.  

“The Chicago Fire Department, following an inspection of the main hospital building, determined that it posed an actual and imminent danger to the public and recommended it be demolished,” Erin Lavin Cabonargi, executive director of PBC, said in a statement. “The main hospital building was in very poor condition when the city purchased the former hospital campus site in 2009 and the building has continued to deteriorate.” After years of neglect, the building’s roof has begun to cave, causing a slew of other safety hazards. Squatters have also been occupying the structure.

The city is still considering saving Walter Gropius’ Singer Pavilion, another modernist structure on site. But Fine voiced skepticism over any new promises. “It’s the taxpayers who pay for the demolition of the campus,” he said, “and will continue to pay until redevelopment, which could take years or, more likely, decades.”