Activists oppose historic hospital demolition

By The Columbia Chronicle

Time is drawing near for a decision on the fate of the old Prentice Women’s Hospital.

In a little more than two weeks, preservationists will choose between Northwestern University’s need to enlarge its biomedical research facilities and those who argue  that the old Prentice is such a key element of Chicago’s architectural history that it must not be demolished.

The building, which is at 333 E. Superior St., and was built in 1975, has been vacant since 2007 and stands in the way of Northwestern’s expansion plans. Activists argue that destroying a crucial piece of Chicago’s landscape will diminish the city’s world-class blend of post-modern and futuristic architecture.

Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, a group that fights for landmark status of endangered buildings, said she hopes Northwestern gets the space it needs for its medical research but only if Prentice remains intact.

“Ideally, we would see a reuse of Prentice Hospital for some purpose,” McDonald said. “Landmarks Illinois has conducted a reuse study that showed that there are at least three potential options: student housing, office spaces and classrooms.”

McDonald added that a private hotel developer was interested in purchasing the building to develop a boutique hotel for Northwestern’s campus.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks opted not to discuss Prentice at its September and October hearings and will wait until Nov. 1 to decide whether the hospital will be assigned landmark status, which would mean it cannot be demolished, McDonald said.

The Save Prentice Coalition, a collection of activist groups that includes Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and Chicago Modern, runs a blog about Prentice to spread awareness of the issue.

Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said the university is overlooking the building’s historical and architectural significance.

The hospital’s groundbreaking design was created by famed Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg in 1974. Fine explained that Prentice’s structure had the architectural community marveling at Goldberg’s unique use of concrete and innovative structural design.

“Goldberg was a very important architect, not only in Chicago, but also internationally,” Fine said. “The Prentice Hospital is one of his finest works, not only from an architectural standpoint, but from an engineering standpoint [as well].”

As activists fight for the preservation of the building, Gerald Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said he believes the university’s redevelopment plan is an economic stimulus for Chicago.

He noted that the project will temporarily create as many as 2,500 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs within the research facility, which will attract a multitude of high-income medical professionals and world-class student talent to Northwestern’s growing medical program.

Roper said the new research center  would vastly increase the amount of grant money for biomedical research the university annually receives by 50 percent, from $225 million to more than $450 million.

He added that the project would nurture innovative medical research  at the university and generate approximately $400 million  for the city.

Northwestern officials could not be reached for comment.

Fine said Northwestern should release a more detailed plan for its future redevelopment plan in order to tear down such a historic building and also allow for public input from area residents on the progress of the project.

“The stance the university is taking is disingenuous,” Fine said. “Medical advancements can still be found by putting their research facility on another piece of dirt.”