Prentice Tower in Critical Condition

Prentice Tower in Critical Condition

Bertrand Goldberg’s threatened Prentice Tower in Chicago.
Courtesy Landmarks Illinois

Apart from stints at Harvard, the Bauhaus, and a few years in the office of Mies van der Rohe, Bertrand Goldberg was a Chicagoan all the way. Whether or not the city will return the architect’s dedication remains to be seen.

Goldberg, who died in 1997, designed over a dozen buildings in a career spanning four mid-century decades, among them the iconic “corncob” apartment complex, Marina City (1959); the Raymond Hilliard Homes (1966); and River City (1980-86).

Now, one of the most distinctive, Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975), its bulbular tower vacant since 2007, is in danger of demolition once the psychiatric service offices located in the base of building move out this summer, as planned. Landmarks Illinois has put the hospital for two years running on its Ten Most Endangered Historic Places list.

The women’s hospital, now in the possession of Northwestern University, was once a progressive birthing center, its forward mission reflected in its design, inside and out, with a layout putting nurse stations at the center of a radial plan of wedge-shaped patient rooms. It featured in the 70s the kind of accessible social-networking plan that is now considered essential in a wide variety of medical, research, and institutional buildings.

An original rendering of Goldberg’s Chicago Prentice Tower.

Structurally, it is just as dynamic. After working ten years on the design, Goldberg, who was one of the first to employ computer-modeling techniques adapted from the aeronautics industry, came up with its elegant shape. A quatrefoil mass in concrete cantilevered from a supportive core and free of interior columns, the tower meets the box-shaped base with a circle of interlocking sliced parabolic arches.

“Goldberg’s finger was on the pulse of a lot of the same things that interest architects today,” said Alison Fisher, an assistant curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the first retrospective, Bertrand Goldberg: Architect of Invention, is in the works and due to open in September. “He was at the forefront of cross-pollination with his interests in engineering, materials research, pre-fabrication, and healthcare. He was trying to push the boundaries of what architects could do.” Fisher also noted that interest in Goldberg is mounting as students and such au courant architects as Jeanne Gang are exploring his works anew. (The AIC holds Goldberg’s archives.)

Whether that renewed interest can save the Prentice Women’s Hospital is unclear. Landmarks Illinois recently launched a website to stir public awareness, and is working on a report, due in March, suggesting adaptive reuses for the building that are both medically-related (research labs, housing for doctors and nurses) and needed in the area (offices). According to James Peters, the group’s president, public support will be critical to rescuing the Prentice. “Response from the architecture community has always been very positive; they know the building is a structural tour de force. The public reaction is more mixed. Some say it looks like a prison. People just love it or hate it,” he said.

With the “Save the Prentice” campaign winning friends on Facebook, and local 42nd ward alderman Brendan Reilly, a supporter of modern architecture in the past, lending an ear, hope is cautiously alive that the building can be saved. “One thing is for sure: It’s the most distinctive building in Streeterville,” Peters said. “But once it’s empty, it becomes vulnerable.”