Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Is one of Chicago's great Beaux-Arts buildings, old Cook County Hospital, about to get new life?

Is one of Chicago's great Beaux-Arts buildings, old Cook County Hospital, about to get new life?
By Blair Kamin
Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune
March 1, 2010

There are medical miracles and there are architectural miracles. Seven years ago, one of Chicago’s great historic buildings, the old Cook County Hospital, had a near-death experience. On Tuesday, the Cook County Board is expected to vote on a carefully considered, economically sensible plan to resuscitate it.

Mothballed since 2002, when the blandly institutional John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital replaced it, old Cook County Hospital is one of Chicago’s finest Beaux-Arts building—a palace of healing whose classical flourishes powerfully communicate the idea that the building represented a source of strength and succor to the poor and sick. The hospital later embedded itself in the public consciousness as the model for the popular television series “ER.”

Located at 1835 W. Harrison St., old Cook County Hospital has occupied a kind of architectural purgatory—neither dead nor fully alive—since 2003 when Cook County board members beat back a push by the late John Stroger, then County Board president, to demolish it after the opening of the new hospital that bore his name. The old building was subsequently listed in the National Register of Historic Places and portions of it were wrapped in ungainly metal straps meant to keep its deteriorating stone and brick facade from falling on passerby. But those bandages cannot hide the structure’s extraordinary beauty—or the worthiness of the plan to adapt it to a new use.

At issue Tuesday will be a recommendation from the real estate analysts Jones Lang LaSalle that the county spend nearly $108 million to transform the old hospital building into medical offices. Their report, ironically, was ordered up by the administration of John Stroger’s son, Todd, now the lame-duck County Board president.

Under the plan, the county would serve as the developer while the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, which administers health care facilities in Chicago and suburban Cook County, would occupy new offices in the revamped hospital. All that’s needed is a thumbs up from the County Board’s Construction Committee and the full board. A design team would shape plans for the gut-rehab this year and construction, the consultants say, would be completed by 2012.

Still, there are difficult questions: Why, for example, restore the old hospital when even the consultants’ study acknowledges that it would cost $23 million less—about $85 million—to demolish the old building and erect a new administrative building? Repairing and restoring the facade alone will cost $18.1 million, the consultants estimate. That is serious money, especially in these lousy economic times.

But historic preservationists have a ready answer: City tax-increment financing (TIF) funds will likely back the project and can be expected to make up the difference between a tear-down and a gut rehab. In addition, as the consultants state in their report, Chicago typically provides a higher share of TIF funds to potential city landmarks, a distinction the old hospital should have received long ago.

It is no insult to today’s architects to assert that contemporary construction cannot equal this nearly century-old monument, which was completed in 1914 to a design led by Cook County architect Paul Gerhardt. The two-block-long building is at once powerful and graceful, its pairs of three-story, fluted Ionic columns anchoring a composition that features all the hallmarks of the Beaux-Arts style, from mansard roofs and dormers to sculpted faces of lions and cherubs. Put a small museum in the building, conduct tours and you’d have an attraction for archi-tourists on their way to Oak Park to see the wonders of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Other factors bolster the case for re-use. Experts have deemed the hospital’s steel and concrete structure to be sound. The building’s long, thin layout should work well for offices, admitting abundant natural light and allowing (if necessary) for phased-in construction. As the Chicago-based advocacy group Landmarks Illinois points out, historic hospitals nationwide have been converted to new uses, among them an Art Deco hospital in Seattle that now houses the headquarters of Amazon.com. There’s even a green streak to the proposed rehab: Advocates claim it would prevent roughly 900 semi-truck loads of demolition waste from being dumped into landfill.

There is one downside: the likely demolition of a handsome classical revival high-rise at 1900 W. Polk St. The Cook County Health & Hospitals System currently occupies the building, a converted nurses’ dormitory, which is said to be unsuitable for new uses and therefore expendable. It’s still a civilized building, clad in brick and limestone, and it would be hard to see it go. But on balance, saving old Cook County Hospital is more far important, not least because it will send the message that a city’s greatest landmarks are often found beyond the high-profile glitz of downtown.


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