On June 4, Mayor Daley will be recognized by the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., as one of their “Visionaries in Sustainability” for his “long dedication to a sustainable urban environment.” Yet within a month, if his administration has its way, bulldozers could be moving in to demolish and discard at least 28 of the 29 buildings on the former campus of Michael Reese Hospital. Last week the city opened the bidding process for the job.
What’s one got to do with the other? Simply put, you can’t call yourself a “green” mayor if you throw buildings away as if they were gum wrappers. Criticism of the city’s plan for Michael Reese on preservationist grounds has drawn national attention in the past week—and those are solid grounds, which we’ll get back to in a minute. But nobody’s talking about the environmental reasons not to do it. As any architect concerned about sustainability will tell you, the greenest building isn’t the shiny new one but the one whose reuse makes new construction unnecessary.
Every building has within it what’s come to be known as “embodied energy,” the amount of energy expended in the manufacture of its materials. Last year Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, quoted a recent study that found there’s the equivalent of about 33,000 barrels of oil in the embodied energy of a typical 50,000-square-foot commercial building.
The Michael Reese complex includes 1.6 million square feet of building space, representing over a million barrels of crude oil, the primary product from which gasoline is distilled. Demolishing Michael Reese will create more than 120,000 tons of debris, enough to fill nearly 800 train boxcars that together would take up seven miles of track. Even if some of the debris is recycled, as required by city law, the Michael Reese tear-down plan is clearly adding to a problem: of the estimated 164 million tons of building-related waste generated nationwide each year, 53 percent comes from demolition, according to the U.S. EPA.
Once all Michael Reese is rubble, expensively smashed and carted away, then the mayor is expecting to sell off the site to a developer willing to commit $1.1 billion to construct more buildings that can house the 15,000 athletes participating in the 2016 Summer Olympics, the sugar plum that ate Daley’s brain.
Housing that many people would take much more space than the Michael Reese buildings have to offer, but based on the report cited by Moe, just replacing Reese’s current 1.6 million square feet with new construction would release as much carbon into the atmosphere as a car driving 89,600,000 miles. At 20 miles a gallon, that’s the equivalent of another 200,000 barrels of crude. And, according to Moe, even if 40 percent of the construction materials are recycled and energy efficiency is maximized, it will take 65 years for a new building to recover the embodied energy lost in a tear-down.
That a “green” mayor would propose such a plan seems unbelievable until you realize that the same cavalier wastefulness runs throughout the city’s plan for 2016, which is topped off with a 80,000-seat, $400 million (believe me, it will cost more) stadium that will be used for all of several weeks and then be reduced to a 10,000-seat amphitheater.
But energy isn’t the only thing the mayor’s proposal would fritter away. Destroying Michael Reese destroys our link to a part of Chicago history. In 1868, Chicago’s United Hebrew Relief Association opened its first hospital at LaSalle and Schiller. After that facility was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871, it would be a decade until a replacement hospital was built at 29th and Groveland. To build it the association accepted a $30,000 bequest from the estate of Michael Reese, who had grown rich mining silver and developing real estate. The hospital was dedicated to being free of the kind of prejudice that was still common in Chicago, serving patients regardless of their race, religion, or ability to pay. In 1884, of 464 patients admitted, 264 were charity cases. In 1907 the original three-story building was replaced by a handsome nine-story structure by architects Schmidt, Garden, & Martin, with angled back wings and Prairie School details.
It was at Michael Reese that Julius Hess developed the infant incubator to save premature babies. Another Reese doctor, Louis Katz, pioneered research on the link of cholesterol in the bloodstream to heart disease.
By the mid 1940s the neighborhood around the hospital had changed dramatically, and not for the better. Thousands of poor African-Americans who had migrated from the south were segregated in a narrow strip of the south side that included Michael Reese, placing enormous pressure on the area’s housing stock and turning much of it into slums.
Along with the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology, Michael Reese was at a crossroads: fight or flee? And like IIT, the hospital rejected the idea of moving. In 1945 architect Reginald Isaacs (the uncle of Reader staff writer Deanna Isaacs) was hired to come up with a plan for reinvigorating the physical plant, and with IIT he created the South Side Planning Board, which enlisted a coalition of private interests and community groups to develop a comprehensive blueprint for the near south side.
At Michael Reese, the result was a series of striking buildings in a parklike setting, designed in the International Style pioneered at the German Bauhaus in the 1920s by architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Architectural designer Grahm Balkany is the force behind the Gropius in Chicago Coalition, which he formed to honor and preserve the architect’s “nearly forgotten and highly threatened Chicago legacy.” According to Balkany, records show that Gropius had a much more direct role in the design of Michael Reese than has previously been acknowledged.
This doesn’t sit well with painter Henry Isaacs, Reginald’s son, who feels that Balkany’s claims are exaggerated. There’s no question there was a close relationship between Gropius, who landed at Harvard after fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, and Reginald Isaacs, who studied and taught at Harvard with Gropius, did some work at Gropius’s firm, the Architects Collaborative, and eventually wrote a two-volume biography of the architect. According to Henry, however, Gropius had only a distant, advisory role in the rebuilding of Michael Reese.
That wasn’t for lack of trying on Reginald’s part. “He wanted the absolutely best architect he knew,” says Henry, and that man was Gropius. “My father tried to get him hired to design the whole thing,” but the project committee “wanted a firm that was willing to be right there.” Ultimately, says Henry, Gropius “wasn’t that interested.” His father continued to try to get Gropius on board, he says, and “as late as 1959, a check would be approved and then stopped.” Reginald would run everything past Gropius, as a student does with a revered teacher. But the real work at Reese, Henry maintains, was done by Isaacs and, largely, the Chicago architectural firm of Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett.
Balkany is out to prove otherwise. He’s gone to Cambridge to search the Gropius archives, and at a lecture earlier this week, he showed some of the thousands of pages of documents he’s accumulated. They include correspondence in which Gropius, his partner Norman Fletcher, and the Chicago architects exchange drawings and redrawings of different buildings. In some letters Gropius argues—successfully—against cost cutting he believed would eviscerate a design. In some he not only specifies what materials should be used but which company to purchase them from.
This would also appear to be borne out by an oral history Loebl partner Richard Bennett gave to the Art Institute in 1983. Bennett talks about working on a Reese research building and fighting modifications to the design that would “change everything that had been done by Gropius.”
Bennett, however, was definitely not a member of the fan club: “Gropius could not even draw, he could only talk.... Gropius was supposed to be wonderful but I hated the son-of-a-bitch.”
Make no mistake: Gropius was one of the most important architects of the 20th century, and if he had a larger role in planning and designing buildings for the Michael Reese campus, it should be reflected in a corrected record. And linking him conclusively to Michael Reese could help save at least part of the campus. Ultimately, however, the question of authorship is a secondary one. The buildings have to stand on their own merits—and they do.
The half-century mark is often the time of greatest peril for important buildings. It was at the same point, in the 1950s and ’60s, that dozens of buildings designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler were determined to be outdated and disposable. Today the destruction of buildings like the Babson House, Walker Warehouse, and Garrick Theater are widely recognized as tragic losses.
The modern buildings at Michael Reese, constructed in the 50s and 60s, are right in that danger zone. Only Schmidt and Garden’s 1907 hospital so much as makes it onto the list of buildings rated orange, the second-highest level in the city’s ranking system for architectural or historical significance. And while public appreciation of modern architecture continues to grow, it’s still much easier to push landmarking for traditionally styled buildings with columns, pediments, and ornament.
All the elements that define the International Style are there in the Michael Reese buildings: flat roofs, clean, clear lines, continuous ribbons of windows. To me, the real gem is the 1955 Kaplan Pavilion: two interlocking masses, one with light brick walls set atop pilotis, the other a seven-story tower with beautifully detailed, continuous windows beneath thin aluminum sunshades. It’s sited expressively on a tall-treed courtyard, along with the 1963 Baumgarten Pavilion to the west and the 1950 Singer Pavilion and 1962 Wexler Pavilion to the south.
But there are other superb buildings at Michael Reese. At the far southern end of the complex there’s the 1953 Levinson Building, originally the Serum Center. The architects of record were A. Epstein and Sons, but Gropius’s hand is unmistakable in the way the cantilevered roof floats above a continuous strip of clerestory windows, gracefully wedding the building to the large-windowed brick structure behind it by a simple, elegant canopy over a walkway. When I was out taking pictures earlier this year, the decrepit, abandoned state of the buildings was complemented by the stark lattice of empty branches of the tall trees around them. Once the trees again burst into bloom, they’ll help bring out the complex’s hidden beauty. Will all those trees also be uprooted under the city’s scorched-earth policy?
Together with Mies’s IIT campus a few blocks away, Michael Reese offers what’s arguably the richest collection of Bauhaus-inspired architecture in the United States. But Mies’s buildings are well protected, while the equally irreplaceable work of Isaacs, Gropius, and their associates has been left to the wolves. Balkany reports that the buildings are being looted and vandalized; commemorative plaques around the campus, including one honoring Gropius, have recently been ripped from their moorings. While it’s possible they’ve been sold for scrap, a far more likely explanation is that they were taken by traffickers in architectural artifacts who understand the richness of the Michael Reese complex, even if the city doesn’t.
The Daley administration is already feeling the heat. A spokeswoman was in full spin mode as she insisted to Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin that it would be “incredibly misleading to characterize” the city’s request for bid proposals as evidence of a planned “demo of every single building.” The actual document, however, is unambiguous, calling for “the demolition and abatement of the structures on the Michael Reese Hospital campus” and noting that “the campus includes 29 structures totaling approximately 1.6 million square feet.” Just six days later, on April 20, that same spokeswoman was telling Kamin that saving anything other than the 1907 building “was not feasible.” The rest would be “cleared and cleaned for new construction” as “current plans for athlete housing and support facilities... are extremely dense.”
To be sure, many buildings on the Michael Reese campus—including some of the largest—have marginal architectural merit and on that basis, at least, could easily be replaced. There’s also ample space in parking lots and on other open land among Reese’s 37 acres to support new construction. For comparison, the five towers and 2,000-plus apartments of the adjacent Prairie Shores development take up only six acres of its 55-acre site. And then there’s the trench of the Metra tracks and the huge truck staging area just east of Michael Reese that cut off access to the lakefront from 25th to 31st. The truck area was Daley’s original site for his Olympic Village, but it was abandoned for the billion-dollar Michael Reese alternative. (It’s still not clear how or when that ugly gap separating the neighborhood from the lakefront might be bridged.)
The thing that makes Chicago’s cityscape distinctive is the collective memory and history captured in its rich architecture—not in photographs or as fragments on a museum wall, but as an enduring, living part of the city’s fabric, preserved for future generations to inhabit and enjoy.
Any way you look at it—environmental, architectural, historical, or civic—the city’s push to obliterate Michael Reese is anything but sound or sustainable.v
Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com.
The city’s plan to tear down Michael Reese Hospital is bad for architecture, bad for history, and bad for the environment.