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Editorial: Prentice deserves hearing by Commission on Chicago Landmarks

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: October 6, 2012 1:46PM

One feature of the former Prentice Women’s Hospital that made it revolutionary was an open floor plan that visually connected patients and nurses.

How ironic it is, then, that the building’s future is mired in a process today that is the very opposite of openness. Consideration of landmark status for Prentice was on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks’ agenda more than a year ago but mysteriously was deferred. The iconic structure has remained mired in procedural limbo ever since.

The commission will meet again Thursday, but the agenda posted last week again makes no mention of Prentice, though some of the biggest names in architecture are lobbying to save it.

The architecturally influential structure at 333 E. Superior, with its four concrete cantilevered cylinders that seem to hover above a rectangular pedestal, was designed by Bertrand Goldberg, the designer of Marina City. In a letter last month, Frank Gehry and about 60 other noted architects called the 37-year-old building “unique in the world.” More recently, five Pritzker Architecture Award winners wrote, “Chicago’s global reputation as a nurturer of bold and innovative architecture will wither if the city cannot preserve its most important achievements.”

Northwestern University, owner of the site, wants to build a research facility there. The university is pushing a patently false choice: Save an old pile of concrete or invest in jobs, life-saving medical advances and the future.

Oh, please.

As an architect, Goldberg looked at design problems in new ways, and coming up with new answers. Why can’t the same be done for Prentice, devising new ways to preserve the building while addressing Northwestern’s needs?

Preservationists have offered alternatives. But, for now, all they want is to put Prentice on the landmark commission’s agenda.

Is that too much to ask for? A full, open and honest debate in a neutral forum?

“The whole reason we have a landmarks commission is so they can evaluate structures,” said Chris Morris, senior field officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

It is ludicrous for the Landmarks Commission to stand aside while raw power determines the fate of Prentice. If the commission’s members can’t see that this is entirely why the commission exists — to take a stand, one way or another, on the merits of a building threatened by the wrecking ball — then why do they even bother to meet?

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