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Kass Calls For Prentice Hospital Wrecking Ball

By Chris Bentley in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 30, 2012 7:40PM

John Kass, whose column in the Tribune reads more like the print media version of trolling every day, today directed his contrarian ire toward the old Prentice Hospital building. Prentice has galvanized architectural preservationists who seek to save the unique Streeterville structure from demolition by its owner, Northwestern University.

Northwestern recently sent an email to alumni, plying support for its plans to knock down the defunct hospital and build a new research center on the site. They reject claims that the university’s vacant land nearby could house the new building; they also dismissed a reuse study by Landmarks Illinois that suggested Prentice could be rehabilitated as a lab, office or residential tower.

Preservationists, including Landmarks Illinois and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, contend the 37-year-old high-rise easily meets requirements for landmark status and should be preserved as an integral part of Chicago’s architectural heritage. Bertrand Goldberg, who designed the Marina City and River City towers as well as old Prentice, was an iconic figure who challenged the wisdom of his mentor, minimal modernist godfather Mies van der Rohe.

Prentice itself tested the limits of engineering and design in its day. It was one of the first structures designed with the help of computers, and its cantilevered concrete shell was a bold and unprecedented feat of structural engineering. The unique cloverleaf floor plan was a manifestation of Goldberg’s belief that architecture served society by strengthening human relationships.

Vacant since 2007, the only hospital Goldberg designed for his hometown will be a test for City Hall: Push for landmark status and he will likely be accused of halting progress or meddling in matters of private (if tax-exempt) property; knock it down and compromise the administration’s claim to cultural heritage and artistic integrity.

Kass isn’t alone. A previous editorial in the Tribune advocated demolition, although the paper’s architecture critic Blair Kamin has unequivocally supported preservation. And more than 60 architects, from Jeanne Gang to Frank Gehry, sent an open letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in July urging him to grant Prentice reprieve with landmark designation. Emanuel has so far declined to weigh in on the issue.