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Hospital Need Not Be Demolished
Cook County Hospital is a significant piece of Chicago's heritage; it would be a tragedy if it were smashed and hauled off to the landfill

Tuesday, November 25, 2003
Chicago Tribune
by Richard Moe

Famed architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable has written that communities generally get the kind of architecture they deserve. Early in the 20th Century, city fathers decided that Chicago deserved a world-class medical facility in a handsome building that would be a source of community pride -- and that's exactly what the city got in Cook County Hospital.

Today's Chicago certainly deserves something better than seeing this significant piece of the city's heritage smashed to rubble and hauled off to the landfill.

The building's historic significance is indisputable. As the primary source of medical care for a burgeoning immigrant population in the days before health insurance was widely available, the hospital was one of the most important institutions in the city's social structure.

Its imposing neoclassical architecture, most of which remains intact, makes the building a visual standout in an otherwise nondescript neighborhood, and its appearance as the setting for numerous movies and television programs has made it familiar to millions of people.

Finally, as the center where generations of health-care professionals were educated and where the nation's first blood bank (1933) and first designated trauma unit (1966) were founded, the hospital played an iconic role in the advancement of health care -- not only in Chicago but nationwide. For these reasons alone, the historic Cook County Hospital is worthy of our best efforts to preserve it.

But there is another, equally compelling reason to save the hospital: It makes good economic sense.

There is a strong and proven demand for affordable housing in the Medical District. Adapting the historic hospital building to that use would meet a pressing social need, stimulate the area's economy with a major renovation project and enrich the property tax rolls for years to come. Its strong potential for productive reuse makes the building a genuine asset, not a liability -- so why should the citizens of Cook County spend upwards of $20 million to flatten it?

As recently as July, the county commissioners agreed to issue a request for proposals to the numerous developers who had expressed interest in rehabbing the historic hospital building -- but staffers haven't done a good job of following through.

Even after more than a dozen interested developers toured the property, the county merely repeated its promise to issue a formal RFP.Finally, after two more months of delay, the county issued a one-page letter that did more to discourage developers than to solicit their interest. Meanwhile, as this half-hearted effort dragged on, the county was actively seeking demolition bids.

This important building deserves better -- and so does everyone who cares about keeping Chicago's heritage intact and alive.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners should honor its commitment to launch a fair and open process to solicit proposals for the redevelopment of the historic Cook County Hospital. If this effort is undertaken in good faith, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its statewide partner, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, will be eager to provide support and help in any way we can.

Communities from coast to coast have demonstrated the power of preservation as a tool for economic revitalization and provided numerous examples of large institutional structures converted to productive new uses.

Chicago itself has an impressive record of using landmark buildings to bring new vitality to commercial and residential areas alike without sacrificing their unique character. The preservation and reuse of the Cook County Hospital offers this city a unique opportunity to save an irreplaceable piece of its rich history -- and, in the process, to serve as a preservation model for other cities. It's the only option that makes sense.



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