November 6, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Prentice Women's Hospital, a Modernist Icon

Saying Goodbye to Prentice Women's Hospital

Every preservationist, whether new to the game or a seasoned saver, walks into a fight knowing there's always a chance for loss. It's one of the unfortunate side effects of our cause -- that not every building will stay around for the next generation.

Now that sad moment has come for our National Treasure Prentice Women's Hospital, a Modernist icon in Chicago that is currently being demolished to make way for a new Northwestern University building.

But with loss comes hope. Losses can galvanize us. They remind us what's worth fighting for. And they inspire us to make sure it doesn't happen to other much-loved places elsewhere in the country.

As the scaffolding goes up around Prentice, we sat down with our colleague Chris Morris, a senior field officer for the National Trust who's been dedicated to Prentice since day 1. Here's what she had to say about the hospital, Modernism, and moving forward.

Prentice Women's Hospital exterior view

The Save Prentice Coalition -- which includes AIA Chicago, DoCoMoMo, Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust, and Preservation Chicago -- has been working for nearly a decade to save Prentice. What does it feel like to watch the scaffolding go up now?

As you might expect, it’s heartbreaking and incredibly disappointing to see the scaffolding go up around the building and know that demolition has started. Having toured the building earlier this year for the photo documentation project, I was shocked to see that it’s in really good shape. Even after 40 years of hard use and deferred maintenance, it looks amazingly good.

You can really understand what Goldberg was trying to do with the plan and see how it would make the interaction between hospital staff, patients, and their families so much more direct. It’s an intimate and beautiful plan, but it’s also very functional.

The entire time I was there, I kept thinking how shameful it is that Northwestern would reject a building that’s still so viable and has so many potential reuses -- especially one that’s this distinctive architecturally, and so innovative in terms of engineering and hospital design.

Prentice Women's Hospital nurse chart

How are you saying goodbye to the building? What’s happening in its final days?

In March Northwestern offered me the opportunity to document the building prior to demolition, since no one had been inside Prentice for many years and none of us were allowed near it during the battle to save it. I was grateful to have the chance to experience the building up close after all these years, walk through the empty halls, touch the concrete surfaces, and see how the building would have worked.

I was really lucky to find a fantastic team of photographers (Dave Schalliol and Scrappers Film Group) who captured Prentice on film in a way that no one else had done before. Our intention is to share those images with everyone.

But while we have a gorgeous short video and beautiful photos, my hope is to make a short documentary about Prentice that will tell a more full story about the building, its design, its history, and its significance to Modern architecture.

We’re also asking people to submit their personal stories, photos, and videos about Prentice on so they have a chance to share their feelings and memories about the building in its final moments.

Prentice Women's Hospital wall of windows

Even though the outcome isn’t ideal, what do you count as one of the project’s biggest successes?

It’s tough to name just one because a number of very positive things came out of our campaign. The formation of the Save Prentice Coalition was definitely a big success. Although several of us have worked together on various preservation projects in Chicago, we’ve never done a sustained and focused campaign like this. We all worked well together, learned a lot from the process, and plan to continue collaborating on future projects and policy issues in Chicago.

The biggest success was all of the support we received from people in Chicago and around the world during the campaign. Thousands of people signed the petition to save Prentice and followed us on Facebook, and hundreds of people came out at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks (CCL) meetings to argue for landmark designation.

It was deeply gratifying and very moving to witness so many people descend on the Commission meetings to a make thoughtful, passionate pleas for the preservation of this iconic Modern building. If nothing else, the public and the press now understand the role of CCL and how critical they are in protecting Chicago’s architectural heritage.

What came as the biggest surprise to you and Save Prentice Coalition during this campaign?

Hands down, the phenomenal press coverage. The fight to save Prentice was one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- preservation story of 2012. I think it’s safe to say that we never would have gotten Prentice on the CCL agenda for consideration as a landmark if there hadn’t been such consistent and good coverage of the issues in the Chicago media and the national press.

Much of that was due to our PR firm, ASGK Public Strategies. They became a very important part of the team and they taught the Save Prentice Coalition so much about how to work effectively with the media. We were fortunate to have them on board.

Prentice Women's Hospital view from the bottom up

photo by: Tom Harris at Hedrich Blessing

What’s the state of Modernism around the country? Are other places under threat? And if so, what can people do to help protect these icons?

There are certainly lots of threats to Modern buildings and sites across the country, largely because many of these places simply haven’t yet been recognized as important, let alone documented or designated. That continues to be a real issue in Chicago, where very few buildings after WWII have been landmarked.

But you also can see the threat in many other places, like the attempt to demolish Paul Rudolph’s 1967 Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York; the chronic lack of funding that left Hilario Candela’s spectacular 1963 Miami Marine Stadium to languish unused for two decades; and the devastating loss of Richard Neutra’s 1963 Cyclorama at Gettysburg in March.

That said, there are many hopeful signs out there that are driven by economic considerations.

  • The Orange County board voted last year to reject $14 million in bond funding for a new government center and instead took a critical a look at the costs for the successful renovation of the Paul Rudolph-designed library at UMass Dartmouth.
  • Eero Saarinen’s iconic TWA Terminal was saved from the wrecking ball by the New York Port Authority, who invested nearly $20 million in restoration after the addition of a JetBlue terminal at JFK airport.
  • Even Chicago has seen its share of high-profile rehabs of Modern buildings, including the 1958 Inland Steel building designed by SOM, and the award-winning restoration of Bertrand Goldberg’s 1966 Hilliard Homes as affordable and senior housing.

The availability of the federal rehab tax credits was critical to the financing of both of these Chicago projects, and we are seeing more and more Modern-era buildings emerge as prime candidates for rehab as they become eligible for listing on the National Register and can make use of these financial incentives.
Prentice Women's Hospital side view close-up

Modernism can be a flashpoint style; people either adore it or hate it. But you have the soapbox right now, so you get to state your case: Why should people fall in love with Modernism?

That’s a hard question, since I personally love the aesthetic of Modern architecture in pretty much all of its forms. But I didn’t always feel that way! I recognize that there are many people who don’t appreciate Modernism, and I sympathize with those who simply don’t think architecture from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s is “historic.”

I suppose I could take the wonky route and talk about how every generation has a tendency not to appreciate architecture that’s 40-50 years old. But I think there are other factors at play with Modern architecture. Because Modernism was intended to be a clear stylistic break with the more referential styles that came before it, it can sometimes come off as very unusual and even a bit alien. But it’s precisely these differences that I find so interesting and appealing!

Architects, engineers, and designers were pushing the boundaries with materials to create new shapes and spaces intended to support new “modern” modes of living and working. Some of these experiments were dead ends, but many of them were quite successful.

It’s that spirit of innovation and experimentation, and the desire to create something completely new, that makes Modern architecture so fascinating to me, and so worthy of our recognition and protection. The more you know about what the architects and engineers were trying to create and why, the easier it is to appreciate what they created.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi was the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.

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