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Razing old hospital would be costly loss for county

Wednesday, January 21, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

We live in a golden age for preservation and renewal in Chicago. People live in former shoe factories and cold storage warehouses. Hotels have taken over dingy office buildings and a faded auditorium became a fancy furniture store. Development has spread to areas that used to be too seedy, too industrial, too far from the lake.

In the chambers of Cook County government, it's as if none of that has happened.

With a pigheaded determination to avoid better ideas, County Board President John Stroger is intent on demolishing the old Cook County Hospital at 1835 W. Harrison. The board could approve a demolition contract as soon as Thursday.

Preservationists are upset and they've done a good job of stoking opposition on the County Board, even though Stroger still may have a majority of the votes. But a far larger group -- taxpayers -- should be upset, too. Tearing down the old hospital, a building that could not be replicated today at any reasonable cost, is foolish.

Add to that the building's location in a district where there's a relentless expansion of medical space, including the county's own long-term appetite, and a demolition looks absurd.

When architecture is an issue, people sometimes try to rescue buildings that have no prospects for present-day life. The old County is absolutely not in that category.

With its oldest sections dating from 1913, County's most visible part is its two-block stretch along Harrison. Its cladding of brick, granite and terra cotta lends a gray eminence to the street and Pasteur Park immediately north. But the secret to the building's convertibility are its five wings that run north-south behind the Harrison frontage.

Those wings are architecturally expendable and could be razed, renovated or replaced, depending on plans and money. They give the building a scalable quality -- one section could be closed off while another is fully occupied. To developers accustomed to more difficult sites, it's almost a no-brainer. One who toured the property said it would take only a year to "turn the building around'' and make it productive again.

As for what to put in it, architect Joe Antunovich has worked with developer Daniel McCaffery and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois to craft a practical solution. Antunovich suggests devoting the main part of the building to 185 residences for student nurses, plus doctors' offices on the lower floors.

All the rear wings could be demolished, he said, and replaced with a new ambulatory care center that the county's going to need anyway. That allows for the demolition of the outmoded Fantus Clinic west of the hospital. Antunovich slyly proposed a park to replace Fantus. The greenery should appeal to Stroger's vanity by creating a front yard showing off the new hospital on which he stuck his name.

Antunovich knows rehabs. He and McCaffery turned the landmark Reliance Building into the Hotel Burnham. In November, Antunovich had an hourlong audience about his plan with Stroger and county Commissioner John Daley, the mayor's brother. They took his documents, praised his presentation and then nothing happened, Antunovich said.

Stroger continues to swear the old County needs to go. Why? He talks in contradictions. Either it's to provide open space to meet the city's zoning terms that led to the new hospital, or it's so the county has room for "future needs.''

Any new medical building will cost dearly and be added to the $20 million to $30 million the county would pay to demolish the old hospital and neutralize its asbestos. A renovation could total around $70 million to $80 million and be structured to give the county revenue in short order from rent or a property sale. Antunovich suggested a sale-leaseback that would yield to developers perhaps $20 million in federal tax credits for historic renovation.

Many developers have expressed interest in the site, but Stroger has put them off. Last summer, his staff grudgingly called for their proposals at the same time it was issuing specs for the demolition contract, hardly a way to make somebody hire architects and engineers for a response.

Others can argue County's case for its fluted columns and the classical figures in its facade. But it is not an official landmark and one man's treasure is another's slum. I rest my case on preserving needed and functional space. Stroger can ignore the logic, but at least it'll make him mighty uncomfortable.

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