A six-hour meeting to decide the fate of Bertrand Goldberg’s Old Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago ultimately denied the building landmark status, voting to recognize its merits for preservation and then withholding protection from demolition.
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Not everyone with a design background sided with preservation. Representatives from Goettsch Partners, HOK, and Thornton+Tomasetti cited structural concerns and said Prentice did not stand out among Goldberg’s work. Andrew Mooney, the city’s commissioner of Housing and Economic Development, argued new construction would bring jobs and research dollars that outweighed the importance of preserving Prentice.
The majority speaking in favor of demolition, though, put the debate in no uncertain terms, pitting “nostalgia for an intriguing architectural example” against “saving lives and economic recovery.” Northwestern hopes to build a new medical research center on the site. The university has dismissed reuse studies as infeasible, citing stringent technical requirements for use as an active laboratory.
Preservationists pointed to Northwestern’s massive real estate portfolio — by some accounts 44 percent of the Streeterville neighborhood, including an empty lot across the street from Prentice — and accused the University of presenting a false choice between medical advancement and economic development on one hand and architectural heritage on the other.
Landmarks commission chairman Rafael Leon took offense to that notion. “This is about a building,” Leon said. “We are all in favor of preserving lives.” But, he said at the meeting’s conclusion, just because a building meets the commission’s criteria for landmark designation does not mean it warrants it. City ordinance prevents commissioners from explicitly considering economic concerns in evaluating their criteria for preservation, but it does allow for consideration within a “larger framework” of civic issues.
There was just one holdout on the critical vote to revoke the commission’s earlier recommendation for landmark status — commissioner Christopher Reed. Afterwards Reed said the process reminded him of losing Michael Reese Hospital, a south side modernist and Prairie-style complex designed by the likes of Walter Gropius and Hideo Sasaki among others. Mayor Richard M. Daley rushed plans for that site through a hasty process that stymied public comment.