Prentice Women's Hospital: A Eulogy
Anjulie Rao and Prentice Women's Hospital. Headshot photo courtesy of Mike Hari, fadeoutphoto.com
On October 12, 2012, I was thrown out of the Apple store on North Michigan Avenue, Chicago. I may have cried after the employee said, gruffly, he could not help me. Granted, I was overwhelmed by school, tired from the long walk to the store, and was feeling helpless in a city where I was a brand-new citizen.
I left in a hurry, dodging crowds of shoppers and tourists. The noise, the bustle -- it was all too much. The stench of new clothes, the one you wash your brand new jeans twice before wearing to get rid of, filled the air as I walked past the storefronts.
Taking a right, I headed toward the lake down an unknown side street where it felt like the quiet echoed amongst the calamity. This, and the breeze from the lake, drew me in. One block down, it seemed to go silent. Walking past walls of glass, I realized I had entered the Northwestern Hospital corridor. Steel, white concrete, and the glimmering facades enveloped me.
If Chicago was host to the White City of the World's Fair, this street was host to the Glass Village.
And then, she appeared. A monolith of matte concrete, arched and radiating toward the street. I stopped to stare at this seemingly misplaced structure amongst flush torrents of mirrors.
At this point, I had heard about the row being raised over Prentice Women's Hospital in the news. Preservation organizations had named it "Goldberg's Masterpiece," citing the significance in the development of Brutalism as a movement and the architect, Bertrand Goldberg, who used one of the first IBM computers to design the building's cantilevered clover shape.
I agreed with Save Prentice, the nonprofit organization founded to preserve the formerly state-of-the-art obstetrics hospital. However, Northwestern University fought long and hard to have Prentice torn down in order to transform the lot into a cutting-edge cancer research facility.
"Agreed" turned into passion. I attended hearings and told my mom that if I got arrested it would be because I had lain down in front of a bulldozer, which -- I'm sorry, Mom -- might happen.
In March, Northwestern got its permit to demolish this building I hold such an affinity toward. The day the Chicago Landmark Committee denied the request to make Prentice an historic landmark was a day that I cried harder than the day at the Apple store. I called my friend back home in Colorado, searching desperately for empathy. And instead of empathy, I got a question:
"Anjulie, why do you love that building so much?"
Rewind. I froze. Why on earth am I crying over a building? To answer this question, I took yet another trip, this time in good spirits and on a bicycle, back to Northwestern to have one more look at my sweetheart building.
And, there she was: quiet, profound, and condemned.
I had a small epiphany while I sat in the vacant lot across the street. I watched the sun cast shadows over her curves; I watched the rounded windows glint and wink at me; I saw the way she stood out amongst her peers, her odd shape and my own confused rhetoric left me -- even now -- with one reaction:
She looks like me.
Now, I may not be the picturesque figure of beauty and perfection. But Goldberg knew that women are not all the same. We fluctuate in curves; our bodies are not flat, sterile things.
Similarly, women's needs during childbirth are not all the same. The building's design, which uses "pods" that encircle a center core of doctor and nurse stations, allows for each woman's needs to be met with efficiency and intent. He understood that a building for women should be like women: unique, clever, intelligent, and, yes, beautiful.
This is not one last plea to save this grand building. Rather, this is a moment -- my moment -- to convey that cities are places that reflect their inhabitants. Individual buildings are created to serve people, not the cityscape itself. No, Prentice does not have a spire to create a breathtaking skyline; banks and offices takes care of that.
But that day I found myself in the heart of River North, I was drawn in by the breeze off the lake and discovered a gem. The one brief moment while I sat and observed her squat and curvilinear form was the moment when I realized that I belong in this city because, though only for a brief time, Chicago believed in Prentice's forms, those so similar to my own, and gave her a place to care for others.
Anjulie Rao is a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The original version of this eulogy appeared on the Save Prentice Facebook page.
Learn more about the documentation process for Prentice Women's Hospital at the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.