Northwestern University refuses to reuse Prentice Hospital

Bertrand Goldberg building finds allies at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Landmarks Illinois and other groups

Photograph: Landmarks IllinoisLandmarks Illinois, rendering of Prentice Women's Hospital (detail), 333 E Superior St, Chicago.

As the Art Institute of Chicago gets ready to open an exhibition about Bertrand Goldberg (1913–97), the architect of Marina City, River City and the old Prentice Women’s Hospital, Northwestern University prepares to tear Prentice down.

“Our long-term plans are to construct new medical research facilities in that area,” Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage told me by phone last month. Located at 333 East Superior Street, the old Prentice closed in 2007, when Northwestern Memorial Hospital completed its replacement. (The Stone Institute of Psychiatry still occupies the building’s base; it plans to move out in September for the fall demolition.)

Since 2003, preservation groups have been asking the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks to grant Prentice landmark status. (Marina City doesn’t have it, either.) Landmarks Illinois has formed a Save Prentice coalition (saveprentice.org) with Preservation Chicago, the American Institute of Architects’ Chicago chapter, docomomo_chicagomidwest, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A few weeks ago, Landmarks Illinois president and CEO Jim Peters informed me that obtaining landmark status is Prentice’s last hope.

Zoë Ryan and Alison Fisher, the Art Institute curators working on Goldberg’s retrospective, would not speak on the record about the Prentice dispute. Ryan agreed to reveal, however, that the show will include a model and drawings of the building. Cutting-edge when it was completed in 1974, the hospital’s cloverleaf shape reflects Goldberg’s desire to give patients easy access to medical staff.

“There were some really good things about it,” recalls Dr. Micah Garb, 44, who worked at the old Prentice from 2000–07. “You could stand in the center and see what was happening all around the floor. It made communication more straightforward. On the downside, that funky cloverleaf structure made some of the rooms really weird.… It feels like it was someone’s interesting idea, and we worked with it for a while, and then we outgrew it and moved on.”

According to Ronald Nayler, Northwestern’s associate vice president of facilities management, Prentice’s ceilings are too low, and its structure too weak and vibration-prone, to accommodate the “state-of-the-art” research laboratories the university plans for the site. Nayler addressed a SOAR (Streeterville Organization of Active Residents) forum May 24 to respond to Landmarks Illinois’s recent reuse proposal for Prentice. Three anonymous architecture firms suggest ways for Northwestern to convert the building into offices, student residences or lab space. A floor added to the base in the 1980s would be replaced by a roof garden, and a new glass curtain wall (pictured) would enliven the streetscape.

Architect Liz Nickerson, 43, gave birth at the old Prentice in 2004 and 2006. Like Garb, she sees benefits to the building’s intimate, circular design but doesn’t believe it must be preserved. “I think Marina City and River City are more successful examples of using the circular shape,” she says. “Architecturally, [Prentice] is an interesting idea, but it’s a B building. It’s not an A building.” Having delivered her children at Prentice in 2000 and 2003, artist Kim Piotrowski, 45, would consider the hospital’s demolition “such a loss to the city.” A fan of Goldberg’s organic modernism, Piotrowski believes “that building, along with a number of others, weave a nice tapestry in the skyline that isn’t so hard-edged.”

Peters knows that people tend to “love or hate” Prentice. He tells me that, in the 1970s, Chicagoans didn’t appreciate the aesthetics of Louis Sullivan’s buildings, but most of us now regret their destruction. Reusing Prentice instead of demolishing it, Peters told SOAR, would divert 23,700 tons of debris from a landfill and cost the university approximately $79 million, rather than the minimum $140 million new construction would require.

Nayler says Northwestern doesn’t need offices or dorms, so it only considered the lab proposal, which its own consulting team finds inadequate. So, when will the university build its “mission-critical” lab? “The timeline really depends on our donors and the economy,” he says. Northwestern’s only immediate plan is to cover the site with landscaping and put a fence around it.

“It seems like the demolition contractors are the ones getting rich,” Peters warned SOAR, reminding the forum that Block 37 sat empty for 20 years. “In the meantime, we’re left with vacant lots and no solutions.”

Save Prentice hosts Bowling for Prentice at 10pin Monday 6. Preservation Chicago encourages the public to attend the next Commission on Chicago Landmarks meeting at City Hall (121 N LaSalle St, room 201-A) Thursday 2 at 12:45 pm, as well as the commission's Programs Committee meeting at 33 N LaSalle St, suite 1600, Thursday 2 at 11am.

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