Preservationists Warn Against Reese Demolition | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Preservationists Warn Against Reese Demolition

It's no secret Chicago is charging full steam ahead to get the 2016 Olympics. One place in its path is the 37-acre Michael Reese Hospital campus on the South Side. City officials see the land as the site of a vibrant Olympic Village, if they win the Games. But preservationists see something else -- the state's only known buildings that world-famous architect Walter Gropius helped design. And they worry it may be getting too late to save the structures and their history.

BALKANY: I'm going to show you a sad part of the tour, which is where the Gropius plaque, the dedication plaque, used to be.

Grahm Balkany points to a rock, where you can see a rectangular outline, and some rust.

BALKANY: It's almost as though destiny is just begging to eliminate all trace of his involvement here.

Balkany heads the Gropius in Chicago Coalition. He says he's got research that shows Walter Gropius – the founder of the influential Bauhaus design school -- had a huge impact here.

BALKANY: We have not just one Walter Gropius building on this campus, but we have the entire planning effort, the master plan, urban design, and then at least eight buildings that he worked very closely with others to create.

Balkany and Preservation Chicago's Jonathan Fine are guiding me through the campus, pointing out the clean lines of the buildings and innovative sunshades.

BALKANY: These ones have this beautiful perforation, which allows light to filter down gracefully onto the façade. You can see that just striking kind of geometric pattern that's set up.

FINE: It's almost like having a lace curtain on your window without having the maintenance. It's the work of a genius.

The preservationists acknowledge not all the 29 structures at Michael Reese are good architecture that deserves to be saved. They hope to convince the city and Chicago 2016 to keep the eight Gropius buildings and adapt them to the planned Olympic Village.

BALKANY: To lose this campus in its entirety, I believe, would be a grave tragedy. And that stems not only from the historical merits of the campus, not even only from the environmental merits of the campus, but also from the perspective of the South Side This part of the city has suffered so many times the complete erasure of its history.

It's not just these mid-century buildings at stake.

There are parts of the campus that are so dense with trees, you can imagine you're in the country. The calm, park-like setting was designed by giants of landscape architecture like Hideo Sasaki and Lester Collins. Balkany says that setting would disappear too.

As he talks, he looks into a big bush and makes an unfortunate discovery.

BALKANY: I was just talking to someone last night about how lucky we were that this sculpture hadn't been taken yet.

FINE: And now it's gone.

BALKANY: It was a beautiful bronze modernist sculpture.

Balkany goes into the bush and shows the pieces of the base to Fine.

FINE: It was vandalized. It was not taken with any care. That happened all over the campus.

As we walk, we see buildings with windows broken out. And there have been reports of squatters.

BALKANY: The buildings were in beautiful shape until the crews came and started removing furniture.

Those are the wrecking crews that got the bankruptcy court OK to take out furniture and other items.

BALKANY: Almost all the broken glass that you see is because the most expedient way to get furniture out of the building is to throw it out of the windows.

BERKLEY: I think they're letting them fall into disrepair as an excuse to tear them down.

Neighbor Maria Berkley went to the hospital as a kid, and her mom worked there. She says what a number of people told me – she finds the buildings attractive.

BERKLEY: I don't see any particular architectural feature that stands out for me, but as far the aesthetics and harmony with the community, I think that they do fit in well.

The chief executive officer of Michael Reese, Jill Crowell, says there's no intention to let the property go downhill. She says the hospital's closing— that's the bottom line.

She acknowledges the hospital's cut back on security, but that it's adequate for the few services like a stand-by emergency room that it still offers.

Hunter Collins isn't convinced. He lives less than a block away, and he and his wife like to take walks through campus.

COLLINS: If you compare what's happening with Michael Reese with Cook County, where it's all walled off, security around the clock, here, I think, it's possible that it could be deliberate more than anything else, just to expedite the process with the hopes of the Olympics being here in Chicago.

For city officials, the Olympics are more than a hope. They're a driving ambition. The Olympic Village plan saves one 1907 building and no Gropius buildings.

SANDUSKY: Where the buildings are, it's just not possible in terms of what we need in terms of the Olympic Village and what the specs would be.

Patrick Sandusky's the spokesman for Chicago 2016.

SANDUSKY: Right now you have a hospital that is closing and shutting and blocking communities from the lakefront. And it's going to sit there, potentially could have sat there just as an eyesore and an albatross to that community. But what we're looking at is building a vibrant community with affordable housing that will open up the lakefront to the near South Side.

Not so fast, say the preservationists. And state law may help them out, at least for a while.

Illinois law says you can't close a hospital without a permit from the Health Facilities Planning Board.  The hospital doesn't have that permit yet, which buys groups like the state Historic Preservation Agency time to review the case and keep trying to get a meeting with the city.

But that could lead to nothing. Spokesperson Molly Sullivan says the city may push ahead with buying the land without a permit.

The only penalty for ignoring state law would be fines. In the end, there's nothing in city law to protect the buildings -- they're not landmarked.

PETERS: People look at the buildings such as the ones at Michael Reese and say, 'Well, those can't be historic, I remember when they were built and they look too modern.'

Jim Peters is president of Landmarks Illinois. His group recently named Michael Reese to its list of the state's 10 most endangered historic places. Peters isn't pinning his hopes on the Historic Preservation Agency.

He says preservationists' best bet is to find a way to incorporate the Gropius buildings into the Olympic Village plan. And then convince the city and its Olympics leaders the buildings are worth saving.

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