Famous architects step in to save the Prentice building

More than 60 architects, educators and historic preservationists send letter to mayor requesting landmark status

July 26, 2012

Cassidy Herrington

(Flickr/TheeErin)

More than 60 architects, educators and historic preservationists are betting their famous names might help prevent demolition of the old Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Northwestern University owns the building and plans to tear it down for a research facility. Prominent architects, like Jeanne Gang and Frank Gehry, intervened on Wednesday and submitted a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The architects called the clover-shaped building by Bertrand Goldberg a “breakthrough in structural engineering” and asked for landmark status.

Goldberg is a Chicago native who spent much of his career here and is best known for his Marina City towers. He studied under Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus in Berlin.

“The legacy of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital is unmistakable,” the letter says. “Chicago’s reputation as a nurturer of bold innovation and architecture will wither if the city cannot preserve its most important achievements.”

But on Thursday, Northwestern said it has not changed its plans to demolish the building. A spokesperson said that it’s “unsuitable for the kind of modern biomedical research building the University needs to build on the site.”

The university says a feasibility study showed the Prentice wouldn’t be adequate as research space and would cost too much to convert.

Listen to an extended excerpt from the interview with architect Dirk Lohan:

 

 

One of the well-known architects who signed the letter asking for landmark status, Dirk Lohan, doesn’t buy that argument.

He’s the grandson of Mies van der Rohe.  Lohan’s legacy in Chicago involves the restructuring of classic old buildings like Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and his controversial addition to Soldier Field.  He’s a fan of Goldberg’s building.

“These are the kinds of things that I think our city needs to think about, to rejuvenate older buildings that may not meet their original functions exactly the way they were meant to be,” Lohan said. “And I have a hard time believing that another use cannot be found to work within that structure.”

 “Goldberg’s work was singular and idiosyncratic,” Lohan said. “He was a creative talent that worked in a way in contrast to the predominant modern direction that was popular at that time.”

Lohan said Goldberg’s distinctive use of cement helped him stand out during this period when many modernist architects, like van der Rohe, were working primarily with glass and steel.

The Prentice building’s concrete shell has been likened to a cloverleaf or flower petals.

“You could read all kinds of things in it,” Lohan said. “I think the building also has a very sinuous quality, and it was a women’s hospital. So to me, it expresses something about women’s bodies that I find attractive.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has joined the fight. It added the Prentice to its list of most endangered buildings last year.