Lubing Up the Paddles to Give Old Cook County Hospital One Last Jolt

Stroger Cook County Hospital - Chicago, Illinois - March, 2009 - 038a

With October upon us, around the country countless carneys are busy setting up seasonal haunted houses.  And one of the most popular themes is the abandoned hospital.  But Chicago doesn’t need an army of carneys to erect a house of horrors, because the city has its own massive, scary-looking abandoned hospital just a stone’s throw from downtown.

But after years of absorbing rain and pigeon droppings, the first baby steps are being taken toward turning the former Cook County Hospital (1801 West Harrison Street) into something other than a giant yellow eyesore.

The hospital was designed by John Griffiths & Sons and Paul Gerhardt Senior, and built in 1912. It closed in 2002 after a new modern facility was constructed out back.  In between it pioneered a number of now commonplace treatments, established the nation’s first blood bank, played roles in The Fugitive and ER.  It used to be called “Chicago’s Statue of Liberty” because for so many immigrants it was among their first stops when moving to this strange new city of the prairie.

Stroger Cook County Hospital - Chicago, Illinois - March, 2009 - 018aSince the hospital closed 12 years ago, there have been a number of private and public proposals to turn the building into office space, but none survived. The latest gasp for this historic building, which has already had two of its wings amputated, is a series of public discussions being held by Cook County around the area.  It’s asking the general public for their input on what should happen to the building.

Chicago Architecture Blog reporter Mary Chmielewicz was there for the first of the charrettes, held last week.

To be clear, the priority here isn’t in saving a beautiful old building.  The phrase of the day was “unlocking the value” of the hospital.  It, and many other Cook County properties are being re-examined to determine how they can be best used to contribute cash to the county’s struggling finances.

Stroger Cook County Hospital - Chicago, Illinois - March, 2009 - 024aThat assumes that it’s economically viable to keep the building standing.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but also on Preservation Illinois’ list of most endangered buildings.  An estimate about a decade old put the price of demolition around $13 million.  That price has, no doubt, increased.  It remains to be seen if the cost of tearing the building down is competitive with the cost of keeping it erect.

Either way, the land surrounding the hospital is seen as a potential gold mine for the county in terms of office and commercial development.    Herman Brewer of the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development emphasized that while every effort will be made to save the building, the land must be put to a better use and raise needed revenue for Cook County.

Stroger Cook County Hospital - Chicago, Illinois - March, 2009 - 028aA pair of consultants from the Chicago Consultants Studio indicate that the interior of the building is, not surprisingly, in bad shape.  There is good news, though.  There is no asbestos in there anymore, and in terms of historic preservation, nothing inside worth saving.  The architectural value of the building is apparently in its facade.  Chicago has a long history of performing facade-ectomies, though usually on a  smaller scale.  The consultants pointed to the gutting and resuscitation of the Reichstag in Berlin and Bankside Power Station in London (now the Tate Modern museum) as possible inspirations for the future of the old Cook County Hospital.

Interest in the redevelopment is high, and the Chicago Architecture Foundation is helping Cook County with the public input process.  In fact, the topic is so hot that there is no more room at the next event on October 7th.  Fortunately, it will be streamed online.  Check out the CAF’s Cook County Hospital web page for more information.


Location: 1801 West Harrison Street, Illinois Medical District

Chicago Architecture Blog reporter Mary Chmielewicz contributed to this report.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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