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Prentice Women’s Hospital: Landmark or teardown?

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building 333 E Superior Street Friday May 20 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

The old Prentice Women's Hospital building, 333 E Superior Street, Friday, May 20, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: September 3, 2011 12:33AM

Bertrand Goldberg was not the first architect to “think outside the box” which dominates building design. But he did so prolifically, applying new ideas to engineering problems and trying to invigorate urban living.

His Marina City corncob towers are famous around the world and beloved locally.

But another of his Chicago buildings faces imminent destruction — the former Prentice Women’s Hospital at 333 E. Superior. The owner, Northwestern University, wants to tear the structure down in the name of higher uses for its medical school.

Preservationists and many architects have rallied to try to save the building, arguing that it’s a precious piece of the city’s landscape. They say wrecking it would be an abomination in Chicago, Goldberg’s hometown. The architect died in 1997.

“It is one of the nation’s best examples of the organic style of modern architecture,” said James Peters, president of the advocacy group Landmarks Illinois.

The building’s clover-leaf design marks a defiant contrast with the blocky high-rises of Streeterville. Prentice opened in 1975 and has been mostly vacant since 2007, when Northwestern Memorial Hospital finished a new pavilion for women.

Peters said Prentice provides visual relief and the building is “tremendously important for its structural system.” Its cantilevered concrete form is unique and provides floors that are nearly column-free, which in Peters’ view, makes it suitable for new uses.

Ron Nayler, associate vice president for facilities management at Northwestern, said the school conducted a good-faith examination of Prentice’s reuse prospects, using consultants with preservationist credentials, and concluded it needs to go.

‘Not worthy of being landmark’

Northwestern wants to build a high-rise for research labs, part of a campaign to crack the top 10 list of the nation’s medical schools. Nayler said Prentice is inadequate because its ceilings would be too low and it cannot meet modern tolerances for building vibrations, among other reasons.

Alternative uses, such as housing or offices, do not fit the school’s needs, he said. “We do not think it’s worthy of being a landmark,” Nayler said. He added that even if the design had unmistakable merit, “we have shown you that we have no feasible way of reusing the building to meet the university’s needs.”

Peters and Nayler laid out their cases last week before an influential audience, members of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents. The group weighs in on development proposals, and its views influence City Hall and downtown’s alderman, Brendan Reilly (42nd).

Their presentations suggested difficult questions about the site’s importance and about Northwestern’s rights as the property owner.

Northwestern had wanted a demolition permit, but Reilly asked it to wait 60 days while Landmarks Illinois researched alternatives. The 60-day period expires Wednesday, but Nayler declined to say whether the school will immediately ask for the permit.

Reilly has not stated his view on Prentice. The alderman was traveling Friday and could not be reached for comment.

Preservationists said they have apprised aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel of their view, but he has not taken a stand.

Prentice is not a city landmark. Properties that get that designation often have a clear tide of public sentiment behind them. In Prentice’s case, opinion appears divided.

Some SOAR members at the meeting last week said they were not fans of the building: “I thought it was a prison the first time I saw it,” said one. Several expressed more concern about Northwestern’s plans to leave the site vacant while it raises money to build research labs.

“Northwestern as the property owner has certain rights, and I see no compelling reason to go against those rights,” said Brian Hopkins, president of SOAR. Hopkins said the group’s board is evenly divided on preserving Prentice and he isn’t sure whether it will adopt a position. On Friday, it e-mailed a survey on the topic to members.

‘Throw myself in front of bulldozer’

The preservationist cause, however, has drawn prominent support. Chicago architects Helmut Jahn and Jeanne Gang issued statements in Prentice’s favor. Ed Keegan, author of a history of Chicago architecture, said, “I would throw myself in front of a bulldozer for this one.”

Landmarks Illinois has asked the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks to begin an expedited review of landmark status for Prentice. The group has urged that step since 2003, but the commission, which advises the City Council on landmark protection, has not acted.

An official with the agency declined to comment Friday.

Nayler said Northwestern won’t be patient with its property rights. He said demolition bids came in relatively cheap and he wants to take one while he can.

Geoff Goldberg, an architect and son of Bertrand Goldberg, said that if the wrecking crews roll, he’s worried about the city’s image as a steward of its physical heritage.

“This would be a signal to the creative community,” he said. “Does ‘can do’ become ‘don’t care’?”

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