You know how people like to look at old photographs of amazing buildings that have been demolished in fits of shortsightedness? Get your camera ready.
It looks like the former Prentice Women’s Hospital (320 East Huron Street) won’t be standing too much longer.
At a meeting with neighborhood NIMBY group SOAR, representatives of Northwestern flat out rejected a request to delay any further the tearing down of the building, saying that demolition bids were in, and that work had to progress swiftly in order to keep the prices from increasing.
When it comes to buildings and land use in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, the three most powerful factors are the mayor’s office, the alderman, and SOAR. All three are used to getting what they want. But Mayor Daley is gone, the alderman doesn’t have any legal standing to block the demolition, and Northwestern just told SOAR to go suck an egg.
For nearly half an hour, Jim Peters, the president of Landmarks Illinois, presented an impassioned plea for the university to give the building a reprieve. It had architecture firms work up very detailed plans about how the old Prentice building could be reused as residences, offices, and as a laboratory building.
Northwestern has stated that its reason for tearing down what is considered to be one of Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg’s masterpieces is that it needs to build a new laboratory building. The lab building must be in that exact location, and the demolition must happen as soon as possible. Construction of the new building, is another story.
That news was greeted by audible gasps as residents were informed that Northwestern University’s immediate plans are to pull the building down quickly, then leave the space as yet another vacant lot in the middle of the medical campus until some time in the future. How long into the future? The university would only say that it depends on the economy. Based on its immediate plans to erect fencing and plant shrubs, it looks like years.
Streeterville’s new vacant lot will be its third in recent years. It will be directly across from the former site of the Veterans Administration hospital which was torn down by Northwestern Hospital in 2010, which, itself, is directly across from the vacant lot that used to be CBS Studios, but is now in the hands of another medical institution with no immediate plans to start construction on anything.
The idea of having a string of three vacant lots running through the heart of their neighborhood worries at least some residents. Northwestern University’s vice president of Facilities Management, Ron Naylor, failed to answer the concerns of at least one person who spoke up about the safety implications. According to SOAR, “There have been a number of incidents,” in the area recently involving the former VA hospital lot. Naylor stated simply, “Even though we are partners with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, it’s not our lot,” and implied that current campus police patrols are sufficient.
So, what are the arguments here? Landmark Illinois believes the building should be saved for the following reasons:
- Architectural historians agree that Prentice is one of the nation’s best examples of organic-style modern architecture.
- Prentice is one of the best designed buildings that went up in the 1970’s.
- Prentice is the most important hospital building designed by Bertrand Goldberg.
- This was one of the first buildings ever designed with a computer.
- Rehabilitating the building is cheaper than building a new building.
- Rehabilitating the building is more environmentally friendly that starting anew.
- Rehabilitating the building would qualify for federal tax credits.
- Rehabilitating the building would be less disruptive to the neighborhood.
- The design of Prentice provides visual relief in an area that has become little more than street after street of bland box-shaped skyscrapers.
Northwestern University outlined its own reasons for why the building shouldn’t be saved:
- Rehabilitating the building would cost more than starting fresh.
- The floors can’t handle the load required for labs.
- The building vibrates too much for use as a lab.
- A new building would attract better researchers.
- A new building would bring in $200 million in new research funding.
- A new building would create 2,000 full-time jobs.
- The university would lose $150 million in research grants if a lab is built in an old building.
- Chicago would lose 1,500 jobs if the university reuses the building.
Northwestern dismissed the work of the architecture firms that Landmark Illinois contacted, relying only on its own group of experts for determining what can be done with the building.
But what appeared to be most surprising to people was Northwestern’s concerns for only one thing: How it looks to people outside of Chicago.
Naylor repeatedly asserted that the university’s primary goal is to become one of the top ten medical centers in the world, that it desperately wants to attract researchers from around the world, and that the only way that can happen is if it builds this new building. “This is mission critical for the university,” said Naylor. The university appears laser-focused on that one goal, and anything else is superfluous.
The notion of using the Prentice building as offices was dismissed immediately. Naylor stated that Northwestern doesn’t need any office space right now, and if it needs any in the future, it will just lease space on the open market in nearby buildings.
The concept of using Prentice for public residences or student housing was also greeted with disdain. Naylor initially stated that there is no demand for residences in the Streeterville area, and cited Northwestern’s sale of the 850 North Lake Shore Drive (the former Lake Shore Athletic Club building) as proof that the university doesn’t need residential buildings. This was challenged by Chicago Tribune reporter Blair Kamin, who pointed out that nearby parts of the city are booming with apartment development because of a lack of available student housing. At first, Naylor dodged the question, but when Kamin persisted, he stated that Northwestern is not in the business of providing its students with places to live. “We’re not in the business of trying to meet the demand for retail space or factory space or residential space.” This may come as a surprise to several thousand Northwestern students currently living on campus in Evanston.
Safety is also a factor in NU’s desire to eliminate old Prentice. According to Naylor, “Our team has gone through the building, and we’ve seen nothing but chewing gum and bailing wire holding this together. The hospital is anxious to get out because they’re afraid everything is going to implode in that building.”
Northwestern has made it clear that the only conceivable use for the particular plot of land that Prentice is located on is a laboratory building, and that only a brand new custom-built building is good enough. Regardless of whether this position is defensible, Northwestern is within its legal rights to proceed with demolition, and it appears that short of a court order, there is virtually nothing that can stop it.
Landmarks Illinois has tried for years to have old Prentice designated a landmark, which would give preservation groups some leverage, but it hasn’t happened. “We’re never going to get a chance to have that consideration, of whether indeed this is a landmark, which is what the Landmarks Commission should be doing, because families and institutions stop that landmark process from happening,” said Peters.
Speaking more specifically to the situation with Northwestern and Prentice, he stated, “They’re a powerful institution, and this is a city in which things usually don’t get landmarked if there’s a powerful institution that doesn’t want it landmarked.”