Chicago’s Prentice Hospital building gone via an economic report

Chicago’s landmark commission pulled the plug on the distinctive former Prentice Hospital building designed by Bertrand Goldberg:

The final action came after a six-hour meeting during which some 120 speakers came to the microphone to either praise old Prentice or support Northwestern’s position. Allan Mellis, on the preservationists’ side, urged the commission not to take the unusual step of voting a building up and down in the same session…

The four-page economic impact report essentially repeated Northwestern’s argument that the Prentice site was the only viable piece of property for a new research facility.

In the 33-page report on the preliminary landmark designation, the commission staff hailed old Prentice as “a boldly sculptural building.” It called Goldberg “a Chicago architect and engineer who rejected the rigid glass-box that had become the dominant form of modern architecture.”

The vote to give Prentice preliminary landmark status was unanimous; the subsequent vote to strike it down was opposed only by Commissioner Christopher Reed.

This is an interesting “fancy bit of parliamentary footwork” in that the commission will be able to say it thought the building was unique and was worth saving but the economic report made it clear Northwestern’s new use was more important. In other words, they wanted to save the building but Northwestern’s case was more compelling. But, in the end, I don’t think anyone is too surprised by this ruling; Mayor Emanuel came out against the building earlier this week, Northwestern is a powerful entity and a new facility offers new jobs and prestige alongside improved medical care, and the building is unique but not exactly endearing.

Thinking about this more, I wonder if the style of the building itself was its main downfall. It is certainly different and comes from an architect that made a mark in Chicago. Yet, it is not as conventional as many other buildings. It features a lot of concrete for a building meant for more public use and viewing. The concrete doesn’t look so great after the wear and tear of Chicago weather. The exterior is not warm. Its shape is irregular. The windows are a different shape than normal. Americans like some kind of modernism, such as the steel and glass skyscraper which signifies business and progress, but they don’t tend to like modern houses or brutalism. Additionally, it was only constructed in 1975 so it doesn’t have a long history, and it is in a desirable area so even if Northwestern didn’t want the land, others might.

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