Prentice Hospital for Women Meets the Wrecking Ball

Prentice Hospital for Women Meets the Wrecking Ball
Prentice Hospital for Women prior to demolition

Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital for Women is being demolished. Blair Kamin reported on it with a collection of really sad photographs – the blasting sun and crisp colors an incongruous backdrop for the destruction of this wonderful building. It’s appropriate in a way, because the process that brought us to this has been so marked by incongruity.

There was a high-profile competition to come up with new uses for Goldberg’s building. Architectural Record noted that while the designs were innovative, Northwestern declined even to view them. Chicago star architect Jeanne Gang and Michael Kimmelman proposed a compromise to both preserve the old building and build a new one. And there was that temporary landmark status awarded and rescinded — in the same day., as well as a bizarre campaign in which Northwestern posed the situation as a choice between saving an old building, or people’s lives.

Why Northwestern has been so intent on tearing this thing down is a little hard to understand. Of course, there’s money to be made. But couldn’t money be made without losing an important piece of history? Then again, tearing down historic buildings in Chicago, a city with so rich an architectural legacy has always been a little hard to figure.

I’ve always wondered how this happens. How does a great building go through the process of being lost? Naively, I guess, I thought it was lack of knowledge. That somehow, not enough people knew how great the building was until it was too late.

But clearly that wasn’t the case with Prentice. Everybody knew all along that it was great. In addition to the competitions and proposals, there was an international petition to save Prentice signed by renowned architects.

Frustratingly, none of that was enough. Northwestern was just eager to get the building out of the way so they can make a new one. And the Mayor, after trying for about a second to make it look like he cared, took Northwestern’s side. Mr. Eugene Sunshine (how’s that for incongruence?) Northwestern University Senior Vice President for Business and Finance, goes out of his way to thank both Rahm and 42nd ward Alderman Brendan Riley for supporting the tear down.

“Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” – Richard Nickel

The whole process gives an inkling of what architectural photographer Richard Nickel was going through as he scrambled around vacant Louis Sullivan buildings in the early 1960’s salvaging bits and pieces of them before the city of Chicago allowed each one to be demolished. Nickel was passionate about saving the old buildings at a time when the city demonstrated only vague disinterest in its architectural heritage. Nickel’s passion cost him his life; he was smothered to death in Sullivan’s Stock Exchange building in 1972 when a floor collapsed on him during demolition.

Maybe it makes sense in a way that a city that has created so much great architecture would also be the place where architecture preservation started too.

And some people hold out hope that the destruction of Prentice can bring good things: a hope that, as happened after Nickel’s death, this loss will strengthen preservation efforts – or even that this ground-breaking building could be replaced by something even better.

One can always hope.

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