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Push On to Save Hospital Facade
2 Cook County Commissioners in Salvage Bid

Tuesday, December 16, 2003
Chicago Tribune
by Christopher Steiner

Commissioners in favor of preserving the old Cook County Hospital made a last-ditch play Monday to stave off a possible vote to authorize the demolition of the 89-year-old building.

Joseph Antunovich, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, gave a presentation at the County Building on how the old hospital's core could be saved in what commissioners Carl Hansen and Larry Suffredin say is an economically feasible manner.

Upkeep costs for the vacant building run about $400,000 a month, according to officials who hope a vote to accept a demolition bid will be successful at Tuesday's County Board meeting.

In the plan outlined by Antunovich, all five wings of the old building would be demolished, but the main building and its famous blocklong facade on West Harrison Street would remain.

Under the plan, the building would be remodeled to house doctors' offices on the first three floors and nurses' apartments on the upper five floors--which proponents say would help the new Stroger Hospital compete for nurses when they are in great demand nationwide.

The renovation plan proposed Monday, one of many being offered by third-party firms, has the county leasing the building to a private contractor, allowing the contractor to handle construction costs so it could take advantage of substantial tax breaks not available to the county. Revenues would then be divided between the private party and the county.

The building "is an architectural and social treasure," Hansen said. "The building is a symbol of goodness. What better structure is there than one that saves lives?"

Hansen added that accounts of the building's irreparably unstable condition are "grossly" exaggerated. "The horror stories you are hearing are balderdash," he said.

Officials who would prefer to see the building demolished remain skeptical.

"I am not so closed-minded that I am not open to a better idea," commissioner Jerry Butler said. "But so far, I have not heard one."

Butler insisted that something had to be done soon to spare taxpayers the burden of paying for the building's upkeep.

Michael LaMont, the county's director of capital planning and policy, released the $400,000-a-month figure last week in a report recommending the building be razed soon.

Some preservationists charge the report was put together hastily to get demolition plans pushed through quickly.

"What the heck are they spending $400,000 on?" asked Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago. "They're clearly not acting in the best interests of taxpayers. This building should be saved."

Some officials privately have said the votes are in place, including board President John Stroger's, to approve a demolition bid. But Suffredin said he hopes to defer the decision until all avenues, including preservation, are thoroughly examined.

Suffredin said he was still working on getting the votes lined up.

"It's going to be a very close vote," Fine said.

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