Northwestern University wants to tear down Prentice hospital to make room for a research facility. Credit: UIC Digital Collections

I’ve got to give some credit to the preservationists of Chicago: the relatively cloutless crew of architecture buffs has put Mayor Emanuel in a bind.

At issue is the fate of the old Prentice Women’s Hospital at 333 E. Superior, which has been vacant since last year. A new hospital building opened a few blocks away in 2007.

For the last several years, officials from Northwestern University, which owns the old building, have insisted they absolutely, positively have to tear it down in order to make way for a research facility. They say it will create 2,000 jobs and bring in hundreds of millions of federal research dollars. “We want to build medical research labs to attack diseases that are costing society millions of dollars—cancer, heart disease, and children’s diseases,” says Al Cubbage, Northwestern’s chief press spokesman.

Financing the project won’t be a problem, says Cubbage: “We have the money. There’s no question about that. Northwestern University has an endowment of $7 billion. That’s billion with a b.”

According to Cubbage, Northwestern can get the project under way as soon as the city grants it a permit to demolish Prentice.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel would typically operate the wrecking ball himself for a project of this magnitude, but Northwestern’s not looking to knock down just any old building. Prentice was designed by Bertrand Goldberg—best known for the Marina City corncob towers—and has a unique and instantly recognizable cloverleaf look.

If the mayor and his aides were serious about promoting Chicago as a true world-class city—and wasn’t that why we endured the whole NATO spectacle?—buildings like Prentice should be promoted, not destroyed.

“It’s a groundbreaking design,” says Christina Morris, a program officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It’s one of a kind.”

There’s also the larger environmental issue of sustainability. The building is only 37 years old. Are we so rich that we can afford to discard and demolish great buildings after less than 40 years?

For the last several years, members of the National Trust, Preservation Chicago, and Landmarks Illinois have pleaded with the city to landmark Prentice, which would prevent Northwestern from demolishing it. “At the very least, it deserves its day in court,” says Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

He means that the issue should go before the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks, a body of mayoral appointees that’s suppposed to decide which historic buildings deserve protection from demolition crews.

Last year, the commission was set to hold a hearing on landmarking Prentice. But the matter was tabled to give Northwestern and the preservationists time to work out some sort of compromise. Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

According to Cubbage, the city has to choose between saving a building and joining Northwestern in an important medical mission: “I know I sound like a PR guy—but we’re trying to save lives with this research facility. This is not a shopping mall we want to build.”

That, counters Fine, is “hyperbole.” “This is not an either/or thing—like it’s either have the cancer research or save the building. There are other options.”

And so goes the back and forth.

The preservationists say the university should put its research lab in the Prentice building. But Cubbage says they can’t because Prentice is too small for what they want to build.

So the preservationists say the university should readapt Prentice for something else–dorms, a hotel, offices—and build the research lab somewhere else. Like the huge vacant lot across the street, which once housed a VA hospital.

But Cubbage says Northwestern officials don’t want to do something else with Prentice—they just want to tear it down. “We’re not in the hotel business,” he says.

Moreover, he says they can’t build on the lot across the street because they don’t own it—Northwestern Memorial Hospital does. Cubbage says the hospital is “a separate entity” with its own board of directors, even though it’s a teaching hospital affiliated with Northwestern’s medical school. “You can’t build on land you don’t own,” Cubbage says.

As you can imagine, a lot of people—starting with the preservationists—aren’t buying this argument. After all, it’s not as though Northwestern the hospital and Northwestern the university haven’t already cut a fair share of real estate deals. In fact, Prentice was originally owned by the hospital even though it sits on land owned by the university. Under their agreement, the university was put in charge of demolishing the building once the hospital moved out.

“It’s not like these are two completely separate entities that don’t see each other or talk to each other,” says Fine.

As the debate rages, the movement to save Prentice has been picking up steam. In July, about 60 highly regarded scholars and architects—including Frank Gehry, who designed the Millennium Park band shell—signed a letter calling on Mayor Emanuel to landmark Prentice. “As members of the architecture community, we believe Goldberg’s Prentice should be given a permanent place in Chicago’s cityscape,” the letter says. “A building this significant—this unique in the world—should be preserved and reused.”

The letter drew national attention. Eventually the New York Times covered the debate with a story quoting Morris and Fine.

Which brings us to the mayor’s predicament. If he landmarks the building he’ll piss off Northwestern, one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the country. A number of university trustees and other graduates are also generous contributors to his campaign—not that it would have anything to do with the mayor’s decision.

But if Emanuel gives Northwestern its demolition permit—and let’s face it, the permit doesn’t get issued without the mayor’s approval—he will be forever regarded by preservationists and architects (and maybe even his beloved New York Times) as the pinhead who destroyed one of Chicago’s great buildings.

What’s an all-powerful mayor to do?

Apparently, stall for time. The mayor hasn’t made any public comments on the matter, and his press aides tell reporters he’s studying it.

His indecision puts members of the landmarks commission in the position of looking as though they’re robots waiting for their commands. You know, like the school board.

To crank up the heat, a group of preservationists showed up at the August 2 commission meeting to call for a hearing on Prentice. But when Morris tried to address the commissioners, chairman Rafael Leon cut her off, saying the matter was not listed on the agenda—even though people are usually free to speak their minds during the general comment session.

“At the appropriate time, you can make your statement,” Leon told Morris.

And when will that be? asked Mary Ann Smith, another commissioner.

“I don’t know, to be honest,” said Leon.

In other words: he’s waiting to hear from the boss.

Just like all the rest of us, Mr. Chairman.