A second chance for the old Cook County Hospital

March 2, 2010

Cook County commissioners today unanimously approved a $108 million plan to preserve the gray lady of Harrison Street--the historic Cook County Hospital building--and convert the 96-year-old building into a hospital administration building.

With the 17-0 vote, county officials will ante- up $5 million, seek $24 million in city tax increment finance district funding, then sell bonds to pay for the remainder of the project. Nearly $20 million will be set aside to restore the building's Beaux Art facade. The use of TIF funds for the project would require Chicago City Council approval.

The building is located at 1835 W. Harrison.

Built in 1914 and designed by county architect Paul Gerhardt and architecture firm Schmidt Garden & Martin, the building was Cook County government's primary hospital until the new Stroger Hospital opened in 2002. County officials planned to demolish the structure before preservationist groups such as Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and preservation-minded county board members stepped in, championing the building's architecture and history. The complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (An aside: The medical history made at old Cook County is staggering. The world's first blood bank opened there in 1937; in 1953 the hospital had one of the first three cobalt-beam therapy units--for cancer treatment--in the U.S.; and in 1973 Cook County Hospital surgeon Dr. Boonme Chunprapaph became the first in the world to functionally re-attach 4 severed fingers onto a patient's hand.)

Back to today's decision. Before the cement dries on the deal, here's hoping more uses are added to the deal such as cafes, restaurants, a fitness center--anything that can substantially activate the building and Harrison Street for longer than 9 1/2 hours a day. Additional uses are key. And maybe leasing spaces within the building, especially along the street, can offset the public cost of the venture.

Still, given how endangered former Chicago hospital buildings are as of late, the plan to save Old County is just short of a triumph. The last thing the city or the Illinois Medical District needs is a big tract of empty land posing as a "green space."