Cuneo Hospital campus, 1970s
Cuneo Hospital campus, 1970s Credit: Courtesy Melanie Eckner

Back in 1983, when he was interviewed for the Art Institute’s Chicago Architects Oral History Project, Edo Belli, the most important Chicago architect you’ve probably never heard of, told a charming story about how he became the chosen architect for the Archdiocese of Chicago and wound up designing Uptown’s Cuneo Hospital and scads of other Catholic institutions in the city and beyond.

Cuneo Hospital is that big, glassy sweep of a building that curves around the corner of Montrose and Clarendon, looking like the grandpap of 333 West Wacker. The subject of a recently issued demolition permit, it’s in imminent danger, which is why I’m mentioning it—but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story.

Belli was born in Chicago in 1918, graduated from Lane Tech, and learned architecture by working for $5 a week in the office of Henry K. Holsman, where he also rubbed elbows with architects from Perkins & Will. He took classes at the Armour Institute (now IIT), and passed the certification exam without graduating. In 1945, just out of the army and attempting to establish his own practice, he got a break: a chance to do a project for the archdiocese, which wanted to convert an apartment building into a parish school. That didn’t look like such a good idea to Belli, but he drew up a preliminary plan and, escorted by the parish priest, met with then archbishop and future cardinal Samuel Stritch in his office.

Belli, who’d learned how to pitch a project by watching Larry Perkins, recalled that he was doing all he could to sell it when things took an unexpected turn.

“Cardinal Stritch was a nice, easygoing individual. He ends up looking at me and he said, ‘Edo, if you were sitting here and I was sitting where you’re at, would you do what you’re trying to convince me to do?’ And I told him, ‘No, it’s like putting new shoes on a bum.’ But I said, ‘If somebody is going to do it, I’d like to do it.’ So he said, ‘That’s what I wanted to hear.’ And with that he dismisses us, and we go downstairs, and the priest [was so furious he] didn’t even want me to take him home.”

Distressed, Belli told his wife he’d blown it by telling the truth, but two days later he was summoned back to Stritch’s office and informed that instead of the conversion, the archdiocese would be building a whole new school, which he would design. It was the start of a specialty in ecclesiastical architecture that saw Belli & Belli (Edo, who died in 2003, was joined first by his brother and then by his sons) create the likes of Saint Joseph Hospital, Saint Patrick High School, and Saint Benedict the African Church, all with a trademark contemporary flair. (Grant Pick’s classic 1991 Reader story about Saint Benedict’s captures the Belli firm’s winning way with its clients.)

In the mid-1950s, handpicked by another loyal client—printing magnate John Cuneo, who was funding the project for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart—Belli got the assignment for the Frank Cuneo Hospital for Women & Children, on West Montrose. Working with a tiny, soggy lot on former water department property adjacent to Clarendon Park and the lakefront, he conjured up an innovative six-story, steel-frame, glass-and-concrete structure with circular surgery suites, a roofline that mimics an artist’s palette, and majestic walls of mullioned windows that catch the sun, both east and west. And he dressed the whole thing up, inside and out, with crazy-quilt walls and accents of tiny, brightly colored Romany Spartan ceramic tiles. Photos of the surgical suites suggest that the effect must have been like operating in a jar of Jelly Bellies. The hospital opened in 1957.

Nearly two decades later Belli designed a very different companion structure for the site of the sisters’ former convent, directly across the street from the hospital and connected to it by a sky bridge. A long-term care and rehabilitation center, it’s a graceful, whimsical play on the brutalist turn contemporary architecture had by then taken, an assemblage of angled windows and surprising geometric shapes, including a circular “suspended” chapel and outcroppings of green-roof terrace that would be cutting-edge today—all in concrete with a textured skin of embedded marble chips.

The hospital complex closed in 1988 and became the Maryville Academy shelter for kids, but by 2009 the shelter had also closed and the sisters were looking to sell. In 2010, in the waning days of Helen Shiller’s tenure as 46th Ward alderman, the Montrose/Clarendon TIF district was created specifically to encourage redevelopment of the Cuneo property. In 2011 a couple of heavy-handed, high-density plans were rejected by the community, now under the watch of Alderman James Cappleman. By early this year a group affiliated with JDL Development had a contract on the property—subject to city approval of planning and zoning changes, destruction of the existing buildings, and $32 million in TIF funds. JDL plans to build what critics say is an equally problematic project: a $200 million, 800-unit luxury apartment and retail complex, designed by Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture, on the west side of the property. (JDL president Jim Letchinger says negotiations with the city are continuing this week and that the TIF funding in question will be “substantially less than” $32 million.) The land where the east building stands would be donated to the Chicago Park District.

“The greenest building is the one that already exists.”Melanie Eckner, Friends of Cuneo member

Which has led some of the building’s admirers to think there might be a way to save it—and to ask why the construction of upscale residences on such a rare chunk of park and lakefront land should require any TIF funding.

In 2012, Preservation Chicago, admiring Belli’s “lyricism” and noting that he had “introduced a new modernism to Roman Catholic architecture,” put Cuneo Hospital on its “seven most threatened” list, and a small group calling itself Friends of Cuneo began petitioning to save and reuse it. In March 2013 developer David Baum of Green Exchange sent a letter to Cappleman and the city, outlining a plan to turn the hospital into an artists’ residence and community cultural hub. He wasn’t asking for TIF help, but did need a chance to get into the building for a look around. By late spring, though, Cappleman’s office says, Baum informed them that he wasn’t interested after all, dissuaded in part by lack of access. Real estate broker Bruce Reid of Arthur Hill & Co., who’s represented the owners since the property went on the market, says the buildings aren’t being shown to anyone while the JDL contract is pending.

Neighborhood resident Melanie Eckner, a writer and editor who specializes in architecture and art, notes that “the greenest building is the one that already exists,” and says Belli’s Cuneo campus meets the criteria for landmark designation. Last week she and other Friends of Cuneo were putting the finishing touches on an appeal to the city landmarks commission to consider both buildings for protective status.

But it’s a slender hope. The commission is the same group of mayoral appointees who last month gave the green light to a developer who’s gutting another of Uptown’s mid-20th-century treasures, the Hull House Center theater. And before that, they cleared the way for the wrecking ball that’ll take down an even more iconic hospital, Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice.