Monday, November 8, 2010

Another one bites the dust

Mayor Daley announced last week that, contrary to an earlier decision to spare the main building of the defunct Michael Reese Hospital, the historic 1907 landmark structure designed by Richard Schmidt and Hugh Garden will indeed be torn down. The primary reason for the reversal was the fact that the building has deteriorated beyond hope since its closing in 2008.

The sad story of the building's imminent demise can be found here on Blair Kamin's blog.

Lynn Becker in this scathing piece, bookends Michael Reese with the travesty of Block 37 in chronicling the current mayor's less than heroic destiny as protector of Chicago's legacy. There, if you remember, in 1989 an entire block in the heart of the Loop bounded by State, Washington, Dearborn and Randolph Streets was destroyed (save for a Com Ed substation) for a speculative project that fell apart not long after the wrecking crews finished their work. Among the victims was an official city landmark, the 1872 McCarthy Building, a should have been landmark, the 1890 Unity Building, and several other notable if not landmark buildings. The block remained undeveloped until 2005 when ground was broken for the current travesty that occupies the entire block.

During the fifteen years that Block 37 stood empty, it hosted a number of public activities including an ice skating rink and the Christkindlmarkt in winter, and numerous events devoted to arts education in the summer. As an open space it provided a spectacular vista of the buildings on State, Randolph and Washington Streets. As an empty lot in my opinion anyway, Block 37 was vastly superior to the current waste of steel and glass that replaced it.

To be fair to Mayor Daley, the original Block 37 project, including the de-landmarking of the McCarthy Building, was initiated under Mayor Washington's administration as Becker points out. The promise to bolster the city's economy with the infusion of millions in tax dollars and the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs from the ill-fated project, must have seemed at the time to be a no-brainer. But with twenty-twenty hindsight, the contrast of what could have been given the high quality of the buildings that once occupied the site, and the lack of quality of what what we have now, is most depressing.

By contrast the mayor cannot escape responsibility for what's going on now at the former Michael Reese campus. The idea to raise the defunct hospital was originated when its campus was proposed as the site for the Olympic Village for the proposed 2016 Games. Demolition began before the International Olympic Committee voted Rio de Janeiro to host the Games. In lieu of the Olympic Village, the city remained committed to clearing the site for "future development."

In addition to the main building, the campus consisted of several impressive Modernist buildings by Walter Gropius, as well as beautiful landscape work designed by Hideo Sasaki and Lester Collins which you can find documented here. Losing the Gropius buildings is a particular shame as they represent the esteemed architect's only extant work in Chicago. And while Schmidt's and Garden's buildings still grace the city, the Chapin and Gore Building on Adams Street just west of the Art Institute being a prime example of their firm's elegance and style, the loss of the Reese Main Building will be a major loss to not only Chicago's architectural legacy, but its historical legacy as well.

Becker's comparison of Block 37 to Michael Reese is apt considering that any future development at the site needs to be looked at as a 50/50 proposition at best given the current economic climate, even more doubtful than development at Block 37 was in 1989. When and if any new construction ever takes place at the site, it is almost certain that it will not measure up to what will have been wantonly destroyed.

It seems that we continue to fail to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Such a pity.

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