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Rx for Prentice Women’s Hospital? Tear it down

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital 333 E Superiorr.  |  John H. White~Sun-Times.

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital, 333 E Superiorr. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:34AM

For 17 years, I worked at the old Sun-Times Building at 401 N. Wabash, a squat gray trapezoidal box considered perhaps the ugliest building in Chicago. I tried to mitigate the embarrassment by pointing out that, unlike occupants in nearby buildings, we didn’t have to actually look out and see the thing.

In 2004, when time came to tear down the 1950s relic, I half expected preservationists — devotees of the Buildings Designed to Resemble Barges School of Architecture, perhaps — to rally to its defense, and found satisfaction that they didn’t. Not a murmur, at least not that I heard, and I am proud that I can glimpse the cool blue finger of Trump Tower and experience a frisson of delight — a marvelously tall building, like a skyscraper on Mars, marred only by its unfortunate name.

So when I first learned that architecturally minded folk were rallying to preserve Northwestern Memorial’s old Prentice Women’s Hospital, I thought it had to be some kind of joke. Yes, it was designed by Bertrand Goldberg, who crafted Marina City and River City. Yes, he’s a significant architect — I went through his retrospective at the Art Institute last year. Interesting, in a giddy 1960s way.

But Chicago is not a museum. To be alive is to change. And nobody can say that the whole round-building trend really took off after Goldberg. It was sort of a space-age dead end, like Tang. Once I thought of living in Marina City, and went to visit an apartment. But the lobby was so God-awful depressing I literally never made it to the elevators, but spun around and walked out. Though people do live there, so it must suit someone’s taste, and I don’t want them to feel insulted.

Being a fair sort, I can see both sides of the Prentice argument. On one hand, “super ugly” is a subjective judgment. Every lost treasure ever pulled down by philistines was demolished simply because somebody didn’t appreciate it. All those lavish movie palaces and grand train stations seemed merely florid and rococo and depressing when they were being torn down in the 1960s, replaced by horrific acoustical tiled shoe boxes considered sleek and modern, for about a minute. So perhaps 22nd century Chicagoans will gawp at the lost marvel of Prentice: those windows, so oval, those towers, so cylindrical, so beige, so marvelously stained.

And yes, colleges are notoriously poor judges and stewards of architecture. The University of Illinois at Chicago once did a survey and found prospective freshmen were discouraged from attending due to the “physically repellent” campus buildings designed by brutalist Walter Netsch. Northwestern also had Netsch design its own tri-towered concrete mess of a library that, architecturally, isn’t worth the dynamite needed to blow it up, and NU continues to disfigure an otherwise lovely campus with poured concrete monstrosities. And of course, the granddaddy of all academic architectural myopia, Chicago Theological Seminary’s attempt to raze Frank Lloyd Wright’s sublime Robie House in order to build a new dorm.

Thus this isn’t a matter of trusting Northwestern University, whose ham-handed efforts to sell tearing down Prentice, begging alumni and compliant pet architects for support, have been lovingly detailed in our sister publication, the Chicago Reader.

But botched PR isn’t a reason to keep a 37-year-old structure, just as being considered ugly — now — isn’t a reason to tear it down. For me, the deciding issue centers on the fact that Prentice wasn’t just any office building — it was a hospital. Nostalgia doesn’t go far in hospitals, nor when you’re setting out to construct a state-of-the-art medical research facility. Having toured the new Rush University Medical Center when it opened earlier this year, I can tell you they check sentiment at the door. The walls bristle with all sorts of high-tech stuff — oxygen, dedicated critical care electrical lines, fiber optics, vacuum ports. No South American architect signing a petition to save Prentice has done the cost analysis of what it would take to retrofit the old Prentice vs. building an entirely new medical facility, but I’d imagine it would be cheaper to start from scratch, assuming the old hospital could be reconfigured at all.

Even if the cost were the same — say you could modernize Prentice for less — you’re forgetting the purpose here. Hospitals are enormous money-generating machines, and they need to continually build ever grander edifices and create new programs in order to blow off excess cash and scratch their boards’ dreams of glory — and thus they all have to continually build like pharaohs. Nobody creates a lump-in-the-throat ad campaign for a rehab.

Bottom line: NU owns the building, and for uninvolved parties to pop up and tell them what to do with it, I’d say they better have a compelling reason. If Target were to decide to tear down the Carson Pirie Scott building, I’d grab a torch and lead the march against them. These charmless cement cylinders poked with holes just don’t make the cut.

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