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Editorial: Save Chicago’s iconic Prentice Hospital

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital Chicago.  |  Kiichiro Sato~AP

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. | Kiichiro Sato~AP

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Updated: August 28, 2012 6:17AM

Maybe there’s no miracle cure. Maybe there’s no way Northwestern University can preserve the innovative old Prentice Women’s Hospital and still build the medical research facility it wants.


But just as a patient expects his doctor to pull out all stops in search of a cure, Northwestern must pursue every avenue before daring to raze one of Chicago’s architectural and engineering treasures.

We don’t think they’re trying hard enough. Surely, there’s a solution.

The striking building at 333 E. Superior, with its four poured-concrete cantilevered cylinders that float above a rectangular pedestal, was designed by Bertrand Goldberg, the architect of Marina City, and was one of the first buildings to use computers in the design process. Its imaginative central cloverleaf still draws the eye in a streetscape of mostly boxy skyscrapers.

But last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the influential structure as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.

In a letter Wednesday to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Frank Gehry (he of the Millennium Park band shell), Jeanne Gang and about 60 other noted architects described the 37-year-old building as “unique in the world” and called for it to be saved.

After a new Prentice Hospital opened in 2007, Northwestern examined the possibility of renovating Goldberg’s masterpiece as a medical research facility for its Feinberg School of Medicine but concluded it wouldn’t be feasible. Designed for a different use, the building had too little space and couldn’t meet technical standards.

Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage said “the key issue” is that Prentice sits on the only available land the university owns that is adjacent to its existing Streeterville facilities.

But preservationists insist the icon of 1970s modernism could be put to a new use while the research facility is built on a different site. They point to two vacant square blocks directly across Huron Street that are owned by Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and they see other possibilities as well.

Though the university doesn’t own those sites, it could buy or lease them, they say. For example, the original Prentice was built by the hospital on land owned by the university.

“For the last 100 and some years, they have been trading and swapping land whenever it suits their convenience,” said Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “The circumstances are no different today.”

Thirteen months ago, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks deferred consideration of landmark status for the building. Time to put it back on the agenda — at the top. Preservationists worry demolition could begin before the city acts.

The history of Chicago architecture is one of considerable regret, a history of lost treasures that could have been saved. Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange building and Garrick Theater, for example, fell to the short-sighted economic needs of the moment, and how we now wish we had them back. A city known worldwide for its architectural heritage cannot allow that to happen again.

Preservationist groups are eager to work with the university to save the now-vacant building. The university has an obligation to all Chicago to respond in kind.

Or the old Prentice Hospital will one day be, like the Garrick Theater, just another photo in a pretty book called Lost Chicago.

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