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Editorial: Saving Prentice a tough call

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building 333 E. Superior Street Chicago Sunday October 28 2012.  I John H. White~Sun-Times

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building, 333 E. Superior Street in Chicago, Sunday, October 28, 2012. I John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 1, 2012 4:41PM

Preservationists who hope to save the architecturally significant former Prentice Women’s Hospital building finally got something they wanted Tuesday — a date in front of the Chicago Commission on Landmarks.

But they also got something they sure didn’t want — an announcement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that he favors razing the 47-year-old building at 333 E. Superior to make room for a biomedical research building.

We have argued that all avenues should be explored before tearing down Prentice, given Chicago’s unfortunate history of razing architectural gems — such as Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theater — for short-term gains. And we, along with dozens of preeminent architects, suspect Emanuel’s decision someday will be deeply regretted.

But the mayor offered a thoughtful and reasoned argument Tuesday, making a strong case in what we agree is a tough call.

“The diversity of Chicago’s strengths sometimes requires making difficult choices between them,” he said in a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times. “Here, both Chicago’s role as a global hub for scientific research and its place as a world architectural capital must be considered.”

Two weeks ago, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward includes Prentice, said he also had been seeking a way to preserve the building while giving Northwestern what it needs, but “we have not been able to find a solution to that riddle.”

The land under Prentice is owned by Northwestern University, which says it examined the possibility of renovating the pioneering masterpiece for its new Feinberg School of Medicine building but concluded it wouldn’t be feasible.

Preservationists say Prentice, with its four concrete cantilevered cylinders that seem to hover above a rectangular pedestal, meets four of the seven criteria necessary for landmark designation: It is an important part of Chicago’s history; it represents important architecture; it was designed by an important architect, and it is unique and distinctive in its physical appearance. Prentice will go before the Landmarks Commission on Thursday.

In August, Frank Gehry, Jeanne Gang and about 60 other noted architects called the building designed by Bertrand Goldberg, also Marina City’s architect, “unique in the world.” Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the influential structure as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.

But meeting landmark criteria doesn’t mean automatic preservation. Economic factors also can be a consideration.

Northwestern says that, in the end, its plan will do more for the city. The university says the new research facility will provide 2,500 construction jobs and 2,000 full-time jobs, have an annual economic impact of nearly $400 million and make Chicago a global leader in medical science. Those numbers are hard to ignore.

The university also promises it will invite the world’s best architectural firms to enter a design competition for the new building.

The Save Prentice Coalition said Tuesday that pitting jobs against architecture is a false choice.

“Northwestern says it can only conduct important medical research and create jobs by tearing down Prentice,” the coalition said in a statement. “Apparently, Mayor Emanuel finds this argument persuasive. We do not.”

With Emanuel siding with Northwestern, we think we know where this one is going. Ah, well. Northwestern may even build us another gem.

But we can’t help but feel that Chicago’s glorious architectural heritage is being diminished, once again, by short-sighted expediency.

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