NU plans to tear down former site of Prentice Women’s Hospital, angers city preservationists

Sammy Caiola

As Northwestern confirms plans to demolish the former Prentice Women’s Hospital on its Chicago campus, city preservationists are fighting to save the building from demolition.

The University plans to take down the building and construct a research center for the Feinberg School of Medicine, University spokesperson Al Cubbage said. The new center will be part of the University’s long-term plan to expand research facilities downtown.

“That space is in the heart of campus and adjacent to the existing research center, so it’s right in the corridor that we’ve got designated for medical research,” Cubbage said.

The hospital, located at 333 E. Superior St., is close to the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center and currently houses the Stone Institute of Psychiatry, Cubbage said. When the institute moves out in September, plans for demolition will commence.

Preservation Chicago, an activist organization that strives to preserve historic architecture, is one of several preservationist groups advocating for the hospital. The building was completed in 1975 by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg, who also designed Marina City, a Chicago neighborhood.

Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, cited Prentice’s architectural ingenuity as a reason to leave it intact.

“I don’t believe anyone would advocate for demolishing Marina City, but a few blocks over there are people who are active and smugly and crassly advocating for the demolition of the hospital,” Fine said.

While most Chicago architects were building in steel and wire, Bertrand was engineering seven-story cylindrical towers made entirely of concrete, which sit atop the rectangular base housing the Stone Institute. Fine said Prentice “doesn’t look like every other building.”

“There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction from people who don’t appreciate it,” he said. “They say it’s ugly, and therefore it should be torn down. But if every preservation battle was based on whether or not a building was aesthetically pleasing to the public, there really wouldn’t be a lot of historic buildings left in this world.”

The old Prentice Women’s Hospital moved out in 2007 and relocated to 250 E. SuperiorSt.

Kris Lathan, a spokesperson for Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said the old hospital was not satisfactory because it could only handle about 5,000 births per year. The new hospital has a birth capacity of 13,500 per year.

When they left, the University took ownership of the old building.

The plans for Prentice’s move were conceived in 2003, and in 2004, Preservation Chicago put the building on its “Chicago 7” list of most endangered buildings. Since then it has worked with Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) to raise awareness about the threat. Reilly was contacted but did not respond for comment.

“We’ve been trying to keep our elected officials abreast of the importance of the structure architecturally and structurally,” Fine said. “We’re trying to convince the Chicago power brokers that this is a building worth saving.”

Cubbage said University officials have looked over the structure of the building and tried to come up with a way to transform it without demolishing it but concluded that it is impossible.

“We took a look at the possibility of reuse, and it simply is not suitable,” Cubbage said. “It will not function well as a research building. When it becomes vacant we will begin taking the building down.”

According to the City of Chicago’s database, the old Prentice hospital is not a landmark and hence is not protected from demolition. Peter Strazzabosco, spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Economic Development, confirmed there are no plans to make the building a landmark and said there is nothing in the Landmarks Ordinance that will prevent the building from coming down.

Evan Weber, a first-year doctoral student in Feinberg, said the school can always use more research space, and a new facility would be beneficial for students while also drawing in top scientists from other institutions.

“It literally is a waste of space,” Weber said. “I really like architecture, but I still think there has to be functional significance. It’s probably a good idea that they are demolishing it.”

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