Updated: June 17, 2011 4:12PM
As it has every year for nearly a quarter-century, the National Trust for Historic Preservation — a private, nonprofit organization — released a list of the nation’s “most endangered” historic sites earlier this week. Like most of the Trust’s past lists, both the particular sites included and the restrictive, government-imposed regulations the Trust and its local cohorts favor to “protect” them are questionable.
Not all of the sites are worth saving, and ultimately the main way to save them should be to convince their private owners that there’s money to be made by doing so. One of the “endangered” structures, Northwestern University’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, at 333 E. Superior, is a particularly good example of an unimportant building that the Trust and its cohorts want to “save.” Frankly, it’s not worth it, and even when structures are worth saving, private interests, not the government, should decide what to do with them.
Let’s start with Prentice. The maternity hospital, designed by 1960s kitsch architect Bertrand Goldberg, is an ugly, leaky, concrete monstrosity that sticks out like a sore thumb amid the real architectural marvels of downtown Chicago. I know the building well: I was born there, and four members of my family have practiced medicine in the Northwestern hospital system. All of them have told me the building never functioned very well as a hospital and doctors were overwhelmingly happy to move out.
Prentice isn’t “historic” by any commonly understood definition of the word. It opened in 1974, and nothing of particular historic significance has ever happened there. Chicago alone has several other hospital buildings of similar vintage and, for those who admire Goldberg’s questionable style, the city is home to several better, more useful buildings he designed. If Northwestern wants to demolish Prentice and replace it with a building that better suits its needs (or simply isn’t an eyesore like Prentice) Chicago, Cook County and the State of Illinois have no legitimate grounds to say it shouldn’t. In fact, getting rid of Prentice would almost certainly be better for the city than leaving it intact.
Most of the rest of the list is dubious as well. Although several structures on the National Trust’s list — the home of jazz great John Coltrane, a Virginia slave plantation that later became a school for African-Americans and a Chinese neighborhood in California — do seem worth preserving, only one, a Civil War fort in danger of flooding, really merits government protection.
Most often, in fact, the government is an enemy of preservation. In one case — a region of New Mexico full of historically important Native American relics — the same government that the Trust and its cohorts want to give more power to protect history is actually endangering it with large subsidies for nearby wind farms and oil drilling.
Several structures on the list — such as a dilapidated veterans’ home near Milwaukee, an ugly flour mill in Minneapolis, and a very plain family farm in Pennsylvania — are arguably even less significant than Prentice.
Certainly, some old buildings and special places are worth protecting, but the simple fact that something was built a while ago does not make it public property or deprive its owners of the right to use it how they want. Not every place is worth saving, and nearly every place worth saving can be preserved without government interference.
Eli Lehrer is vice president of Washington, DC operations for Chicago-based The Heartland Institute and national director of its Center on Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate.