Friday, November 2, 2012

Deja vu all over again

It was interesting to see deposed alderman Burton Natarus testifying at the Landmarks Commission hearing that decided the fate of Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital building. Natarus, the Yogi Berra of Chicago politicians, (which is really saying something given the quality of oratory in that esteemed group), said the following about the building:
This is not a good piece of architecture...We have a Yiddish word for what it is, farshimmelt.
I must admit not having known what farshimmelt means, but I do know that seldom does a person use a Yiddish word to describe something favorably. From the site I found this:
This term is used to describe a confused state of mind, disorientation, or feeblemindedness.
Now that's one man's opinion and I have to respect it for what it's worth. Lot's of people think the building is shall I say, less than appealing, certainly not worthy of the fuss to save it, given that Northwestern Memorial Hospital plans to use the site for a facility that will not only produce medical research that will save countless lives but will also bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue into our fair city. At least that's what they say.

An even more colorful term I've heard to describe the building is "butt ugly." Fair enough, everyone's entitled to his own opinion.

But I do have to disagree with all due respect of course, to the former alderman's assessment of old Prentice as "confused, disoriented, and feebleminded". The building in fact is everything BUT those things. It was one of the most sensible, well thought out buildings ever built in this city. Goldberg's "bed tower", the cluster of cylinders, containing hospital rooms. around a central core which contained the nurses' stations, was a brilliant, ground breaking design; the architect's sensibilities putting patient care at the forefront of his efforts gained him worldwide acclaim.

Uninformed as they were, Natarus's were probably the most honest words spewed during yesterday's meeting. The Commission went to great lengths to present Prentice as a building that met more than the minimum number of requirements necessary for landmark status. Their report waxed eloquently about the significance of Goldberg's building, presenting it favorably in the context of other major works of international architecture inluding Le Corusier's sublime Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronhamp, France, Frank Lloyd Wright's Gugenheim Museum and Eero Sarrinen's TWA Flight Center, both in New York City, among others. Then the commission voted to adopt
the Preliminary Summary and make a preliminary landmark recommendation concerning the Building in accordance with Sect. 2-120-630 of the Municipal Code.
The vote was unanimous, the Commission would recommend landmark status for the building. Fantastic. But wait, there's more:

The commission then presented a report from the Department of Housing and Economic Development for the City of Chicago which congratulated the Commission for its careful and professional work in recommending the landmark status but added: heck, the building is in the way of Northwestern's plans so it should go, landmark or not.

The Commission apparently was so moved by the report and no doubt by Mayor Emanuel's OpEd piece in the Tribune this week in favor of the demolition, that it voted 6 to 1 to rescind the recommendation they made just minutes earlier.

Heads in the room must have been spinning quicker than pardon the expression, lager turns to piss.

The Landmarks Committee in effect declared that the work they allegedly do for the city is irrelevant. What after all is the point of declaring a building a landmark, then refusing to protect it? Spineless is too kind a description of their actions yesterday. Unless of course this was all part of the plan, which turns out to be the case. In his blog Lee Bay posted the agenda one day before the meeting took place. The events of the following day followed the script line by line.

It turns out the fate of Prentice at the hands of the Landmarks Committee was a fait accompli, it had no chance. The meeting in the words of Christina Morris of the National Trust for Historical Preservation was a farce. Jonathan Fine, the executive director of Preservation Chicago said this:
We asked for a day in court, instead we got a show trial.
Much more distressing than the refusal to protect the Bertrand Goldberg building is the ease in which the commission gave in to the forces behind its destruction. What they're saying is that no matter how important a building may be, there can always be a legitimate cause that trumps protecting a building. In one fell swoop they did away with decades of hard work of preservationists and concerned citizens who feel that the city's architecture matters. It is a terrible precedent that may very well have dire consequences for every significant building in this city. Suppose Roosevelt University campaigns to demolish the Auditorium Building because it cannot effectively teach its students (tomorrow's leaders) in the "out of date" landmark? What if the forces driving the La Salle Street Financial District insist on their need to expand onto the site of the Rookery Building and propose to demolish it to build a state of the art "world class" trading center? What if somebody discovers oil underneath the Wrigley Building?

Those admittedly far fetched scenarios would potentially result in windfall profits for the city, but at what cost? Northwestern Memorial Hospital paints a very attractive picture of what they would do with the site in terms of benefits to the city. I have no quarrel with that. But I have a serious problem accepting their assertion that all their plans, the money made for the city, the jobs created and the lives saved would vanish if they don't get their way and turn old Prentice to dust. The truth is that patch of ground upon which Prentice stands represents a tiny fraction of the property owned by the hospital in their Streeterville campus, much of which is currently unoccupied. There are lots of very talented architects and designers in town who could create a solution that would satisfy everybody's needs, the hospital's and the preservationists' alike.

So why is the hospital so intransigent?  I don't have an answer but looking around at the brand spanking new hospital buildings on the campus all bearing the names of wealthy donors, I have a sneaking suspicion. I have a little experience with big institutions and know that people like to put their names on big spiffy and above all new projects. Turning old Prentice into an office or teaching facility would be very feasible, but not very sexy. Could the morass over old Prentice be really be about ego, power, money, control and prestige, rather than jobs and lives? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

The mayor in his Tribune OpEd piece acknowledged Bertrand Goldberg as an important architect whose buildings are worth preserving. Then he added that we have other Goldberg buildings in town so losing this one won't be so bad. As I pointed out last week, the exact thing could have been said about the Garrick and Old Stock Exchange Buildings, two Louis Sullivan masterpieces that were lost decades ago. It would be difficult to find any reasonable person in town today who would support the demolition of those buildings so long ago.

So in fifty years what will they be saying about us? My guess is they will say this:

"Didn't those people learn anything?"

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