Chalk up at least one for the preservationists. They scored a first-round victory last week, when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks finally committed to putting Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital building on its agenda this fall.
A landmark designation for the iconic structure would spare it from imminent destruction by Northwestern University, which wants to build a medical research center on the site.
Northwestern, meanwhile, is doing a pretty good job of blowing itself up, insisting that Chicago must choose between “saving lives” and saving Prentice, and conducting a propaganda campaign with all the finesse of a bulldozer.
The landmarks commission’s announcement, made by chairman Rafael M. Leon at its September 6 meeting, comes after a year of lobbying by preservationists and in the midst of a massive counteroffensive by Northwestern. The university’s been scrambling to make its case with the public for the last few weeks, since more than 70 well-known architects, including six Pritzker Architecture Prize winners, signed a letter asking Mayor Rahm Emanuel to save the building, which, as structural engineer William F. Baker wrote, is the result of a “revolutionary” design process and “the only example of its type, anywhere in the world.”
The day before the commission meeting, NU’s own, considerably shorter, list of architects in favor of demolition showed up in the Sun-Times. Columnist Michael Sneed reported that the mayor had received letters urging him to let NU take Prentice down from James Goettsch and Michael Kaufman of Goettsch Partners, Jeff Case of Holabird & Root, Charles Smith of Cannon Design, HOK’s Dan Mitchell and Todd Halamka, and James R. DeStefano, founding principal of DeStefano Partners.
NU apparently neglected to mention that every one of these architects’ firms has done work for Northwestern University or its sibling, Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Cannon Design, for example, was the architect for the Prentice Women’s Hospital that replaced Goldberg’s building in 2007. HOK did the new quarters for Northwestern Memorial’s Norman and Ida Stone Institute of Psychiatry, Holabird & Root did the Galter Health Sciences Library, and Goettsch is the architectural firm for NU’s $117 million Bienen School of Music, now under construction on the Evanston campus. And this wasn’t an entirely spontaneous architects-for-destruction movement: Northwestern, which just might have some major commissions coming up, solicited the support.
The university’s running full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune featuring a larger-than-life image of an irresistible child under the headline “Where will her cure be found?”
NU also sent an urgent mass e-mail to its alumni, staff, and “friends,” asking them to click a link or pick up a phone and tell Emanuel to let the university go ahead and destroy Prentice in order to build. Apparently unfettered by its position as a bastion of truth seeking and enlightenment, NU didn’t bother to make its alumni and friends aware that many of the world’s most renowned architects think the building should be saved, or that there could be other potential locations for a new medical research center, including an empty square block right across the street from Prentice (site of the former VA hospital, now owned by NMH) or the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s soon-to-be abandoned quarters next door. As of last week, more than 1,200 NU supporters had contacted the mayor.
Then, on the morning of the commission meeting, Northwestern revealed that it had surveyed the public and found “overwhelming support” for its plan to build a new medical center on the Prentice site. According to NU spokesman Alan K. Cubbage, “after hearing arguments from both sides,” 72 percent of Chicago residents “said they favored the new building.”
The study was conducted by an outfit called Purple Strategies. That sounds like something NU, which bleeds purple, dreamed up, but in fact it’s a Virginia-based political public relations firm that just this year opened a Chicago office headed by Chris Mather, Mayor Emanuel’s former communications head. Purple Strategies drew its results from phone interviews with 507 people.
As NU no doubt teaches in Statistics 101, it would be critical to know how the “arguments” were presented, but Cubbage said the university isn’t releasing any information other than what he’s provided. That consists of the following “key findings”:
- 84 percent agree with the statement “Creating new, high quality research jobs is an important part of keeping Chicago’s economy strong and growing in the 21st century.”
- 78 percent agree that “Chicagoans will benefit from the enhanced research center as more clinicians will be available to provide care to the community.”
- 78 percent agree that “Northwestern’s new investment in Chicago will create thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments as well as strengthen the local economy.”
- 76 percent agree that “Northwestern has had success in finding cures, and this new facility will accelerate the University’s research on cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders, among others.”
To all of which the only appropriate response can be, Well, duh.
NU continues to claim that the Prentice site is the only place the new research center can be built, in spite of the availability of what would seem to be viable alternatives. The university’s running full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune (which has taken an editorial stance in its favor) featuring a larger-than-life image of an irresistible child under the headline “Where will her cure be found?” And an op-ed piece under the byline of medical school dean Eric G. Neilson, published in the Sun Times the day of the landmarks commission’s meeting, maintains that “architects disagree on landmarking the original Prentice building,” and that the 2,000 people who’ll work in the new building need “the critical feature of adjacency” to increase the chances of finding breakthroughs for things like diabetes and cancer.
“Chicago has a choice,” Neilson writes. “It can save a building. Or it can save lives, provide thousands of jobs and bring in millions of research dollars.”
He doesn’t mention a cure for lost integrity.