Will the loss of Prentice Women's Hospital galvanize support for a controversial building style?

When Northwestern University revealed plans to demolish the Bertrand Goldberg–designed Prentice Women’s Hospital building in Chicago to make room for a new biomedical research facility, Landmarks Illinois stepped in again, forming a coalition of partners that included the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This time, though, they faced the challenge of a powerful property owner and a site located entirely within the school’s downtown campus.

Prentice Women's Hospital © (Flickr/Jen Marie) - itself arguing for — and then against — preservation of the cloverleaf-shaped structure during Thursday's meeting of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. According to a draft agenda of the meeting, staffers from the landmarks division of the Department of Housing and Economic Development are scheduled to ask the commission to pass a resolution granting preliminary landmark status to the Bertrand Goldberg-designed former hospital. But if the resolution passes, the department's commissioner Andrew J. Mooney — an ex-officio member of the commission — would then submit a report arguing against the designation, essentially asking the body to undo his own agency's recommendation. "...Northwestern University should be allowed to pursue its long-term plan for a medical research facility on the site of the former Prentice Hospital," Mooney wrote in the conclusion of the report. "As a result, the Department cannot recommend landmark designation of the former Prentice Hospital and further recommends that the commission reject or rescind a preliminary designation, as appropriate." A department spokesperson and others in City Hall declined to comment on the approach. A member of the city's architectural community, who did not want to be named, criticized the move but called it "fiendishly clever, in a way. It gives Prentice its day in court while ultimately giving Northwestern what it wants." The commission's agenda, a beautifully-done designation report on Prentice, Mooney's rebuttal and a draft resolution citing the provision of the municipal code that would allow the preliminary designation to be rescinded or rejected can all be found here. The move comes on the heels of an opinion piece by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that appeared Tuesday on the website of the Chicago Tribune in support of the $1 billion facility Northwestern seeks to build on Prentice's site, 333 E. Superior. "It is clear that the current building cannot accommodate the groundbreaking research facility that Northwestern needs to build, and I support the decision to rebuild on the site," Emanuel wrote. The landmarks commission could still vote to grant the designation, but such a move would seem unlikely given Mooney, Emanuel and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) — the former hospital is in his ward — support Northwestern's plan.

The futuristic cluster of concrete towers, an innovative four-leaf clover pattern with striking curves arcing off a central core, served as a maternity and obstetrics facility for more than 30 years. As forward-thinking as its design was -- with small quads of patient-care areas bunched conveniently around nursing centers on each floor -- the bulky Brutalist building was a place with a face many found hard to love.

“Prentice, like other Modernist buildings, represents a time in American culture of great optimism, technological progress, and art,” says Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Blair Kamin. “[These buildings] are exemplars of art, culture, and technology, but it’s a demanding architecture. Prentice was of a style that has really struggled to find acceptance among the public -- it’s really sculptural. My two children were born there, and if you’ve been inside, it’s easier to understand that the architecture isn’t willful; it’s functional.”

Kamin, who is an adjunct professor of art at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., contrasts Prentice with Farnsworth House, built in 1951. “We always end the class with a visit to Farnsworth. That’s not tough to love. I will never forget taking students into the house -- up the stairs, through the doors, into the space. It captivated them. Without me saying a word they all sat down, looked at the Fox River outside, and almost meditated. It’s a very easy -- I don’t want to use the word ‘sell’ -- it just spoke to them.

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“When we insist upon the purity of preservation we are greatly limiting the options for the use of the building,” Morris says. “And that’s going to have to continue to be an internal debate among preservationists about what degree of change is acceptable to allow these buildings to have a new use or hopefully multiple uses over many, many decades.”