The End for Prentice? Preservationists Drop Lawsuit Over Chicago’s Brutalist Hospital

For months now, the fate of the Bertrand Goldberg-designed Prentice Women’s Hospital has been a sore topic for all parties involved in determining the building’s future. As preservationists soldiered on, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, Northwestern University officials opting for demolition were viewed more and more as insensitive administrators blind to the richness of Chicago’s architectural heritage. Meanwhile, the martyr-like aura of preservationists began to fade as well: Their successive petitions, repeated lawsuits, idealistic adaptive redesign ideas, and occasional published diatribes started to grow stale as landmark status slipped out of their hands not once but twice. The whole saga began to resemble America’s deadlocked Congress on its way to the fiscal cliff. But alas, it looks like the end is in sight.

As The Chicago Tribune reported early this morning, two preservationist groups, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois, have voluntarily dropped a lawsuit against the City of Chicago challenging Prentice’s repeated denial of landmark status, which may effectively end a months-long effort to block Northwestern from demolishing the brutalist building. The groups continue to assert that they had a case to argue against the lack of transparency of Prentice’s 18-month landmarks process, but in the end, they believe pressing a lawsuit at this point will only yield negative and unproductive results.

“We felt that we had done as much as we possibly could to demonstrate the significance of the building and ways to reuse. We just couldn’t see that we’d have any other outcome.” said Christina Morris, a senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, according to the Tribune. “Even though we’re disappointed the building wasn’t granted landmark status, we think some good things have come of it.” Morris explained how the months of press coverage has raised awareness of architect Bertrand Goldberg’s legacy and ignited an important discussion on the value of modern architecture, and assured fellow preservationists that, although this battle has been lost, her organization would “continue to work with our partners to preserve the best of Chicago’s architectural heritage.”

Northwestern, meanwhile, announced yesterday that they were “pleased” with the voluntary decision of the preservationist groups to back down on the lawsuit and will now “move forward on the University’s plans to build a new, state-of-the-art biomedical research facility on that site.” The statement was substantiated with projections for job creation and economic improvements and assurance that the university would “invite many of the world’s best architectural firms, including Chicago firms, with substantial accomplishments in designing biomedical research or similar buildings” to propose schemes for the facility that would replace Prentice.

Photo: Prentice Women’s Hospital / docomomo

- Kelly Chan