As the fight to save the Prentice Women’s Hospital, designed by Bertrand Goldberg in 1972, played out I couldn’t help but think that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, especially because of their growth after World War II, have a large cache of mid-century modern buildings. Typically these buildings were built in the 50’s and 60’s but preservationists are really focused on architecturally significant buildings from the 30’s up to the 70’s that are in danger of demolition. Prentice is not the first mid-century modern building to potentially lose the battle against the wrecking ball and it will not be the last.
While attending the University of Illinois at Chicago, an entire campus designed in the Brutalism style by Walter Netsch, a contemporary of Goldberg, I witnessed the dismantling of that urban Brutalism style campus into an idyllic campus on the prairie. When it opened in 1965 the campus was connected through a series of granite walkways that led from the classrooms to the lecture halls grouped around the central Forum.
The Forum was a large circular stepped bowl area that held concerts, protests and was the place students connected between classes. Starting in 1995 the walkways and the Forum were dismantled in a 6 year renovation of the east campus. By the early 90’s the walkways were drab and when it rained and snowed they leaked and became slippery and hard to maintain. Netsch had designed and built the steps up and down the walkways with heating elements but once the transformers failed they were never replaced. Since then many of the classroom buildings like Lincoln Hall were also renovated, a process that removed the original exterior concrete cladding and replaced it with a more modern glass box look. A visitor today can only see glimpses of what the campus originally looked like.
The Recent Past Survey – Suburban Cook County is conducted annually by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was started in 2006 and its mission is to document architecturally significant non-residential buildings dating from 1935 to 1975, a period known as the recent past. Started by Jim Peters, a professor at SAIC and a former head of Landmarks Illinois, the survey has documented more than 1700 architecturally significant buildings in more than 50 communities in and around Chicago. You can view a slide show at the Landmarks Illinois website that provides a sampling of the types of buildings that have been surveyed.
Modern mid-century American architecture is such that people either love it or hate it, and very seldom is there a middle ground of indifference. All one has to do is look at the comments people post after articles about the ongoing Prentice battle. For as many people comment that it should be saved an equal number are at a loss for why its even up for debate. It may be that a true American “culture” is not found in respecting the architecture of the past but in the constant tearing down and rebuilding “bigger and better” we see all around us. Chicago has seen more significant buildings demolished in the name of progress than I care to remember. Unfortunately it looks like history is set to repeat itself as these buildings from the recent past get older and owners are forced to make decisions about critical maintenance of the buildings systems.
We can’t forget the story of Richard Nickel, a photographer and historian who was killed in 1972 while trying to salvage items from the Adler & Sullivan designed Chicago Stock Exchange Building. He fought to save countless buildings from the wrecking ball and when he couldn’t save them he photographed them extensively. The preservation movement gained momentum after his death, continuing to this day with groups like Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois – two groups that have led the fight to save the Prentice Women’s Hospital from what sadly appears to be its certain demolition. Hopefully, any such catalytic loss for mid-century modern architecture will be limited to bricks, mortar, and concrete. If the Prentice is to be lost, perhaps it will serve as that catalyst – strengthening the public’s appreciation of this important architectural period enough to prevent the loss of the next mid-century landmark.