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Editorial: Cook County Hospital is a stunning trauma survivor

Friday, May 29, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Editorial Board

For most of a century starting in 1916, the massive Cook County Hospital opened its healing hallways to wave upon wave of new and often destitute Chicagoans. European immigrants came first, followed by African Americans of the Great Migration from southern states. Latino and Asian newcomers, too, received world-class care from thousands of America’s best-trained physicians.

Much as Hull House was the Near West Side settlement house that showed a nation how to welcome struggling newcomers, the nearby Cook County Hospital treated their diseases, their industrial injuries and, starting with Spanish flu, their lethal pandemic illnesses.

But in 2002 the opening of its neighboring replacement, Stroger Hospital, signaled likely doom for the now-obsolete Cook County Hospital. County Board President John Stroger wanted the old Beaux-Arts beauty demolished, in part so motorists on the Eisenhower Expressway could view the new structure that bears his name.

With their garbage and graffiti, vandals and squatters eventually defiled the building that had birthed not only Chicago babies by the tens of thousands, but also the first blood bank and first comprehensive trauma center. County government’s intentional neglect left the building looking dilapidated and dangerous. Stroger’s minions on the county board didn’t want to talk about its rock-solid bones, which surely could support some new mission. Instead they plotted where to haul what soon would be a mountain of historic rubble.

The resurrection on Harrison Street

This summer, though, a $140 million, mixed-use redevelopment of Cook County Hospital is set to open in stages: A Hyatt Place hotel and extended-stay Hyatt House come first, followed by a food hall and county medical offices.

This resurrection is a miracle to those of us, including this editorial page, who’ve spent two decades arguing for raising from the dead what some Chicago politicians wanted to raze. The story of the rescue mission is as remarkable as the story of Cook County Hospital itself.

It’s also a lesson in how this city can, when it wants to, not only build stunning new architecture, but preserve iconic structures that document its history. In the end, Chicago got this one right. And there’s plenty of credit to go around — including for John Stroger, who eventually and graciously accepted the rejection of his demolition plan.

In the early 2000s, county Commissioners Larry Suffredin and Mike Quigley — the former still on the Cook County Board, the latter now in the U.S. House — helped Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and other urban historians build arguments for reprieve from the wrecking ball. Their emphasis on the hospital’s importance in the history of black Chicagoans persuaded county board members to vote in 2005 for keeping the structure erect. And, marvel of marvels, in 2007 Todd Stroger, John’s son and successor as board president, proposed rehabbing the old hospital as medical office space. One factor we can’t quantify: The successful television series “ER,” set in Chicago’s fictional County General Hospital, had given Cook County Hospital some popular buzz even after it closed.

Specific rehab proposals came and went. But not enough happened until Toni Preckwinkle, who had defeated the younger Stroger, parlayed her board presidency — and three years of work by her finance and real estate staffers — into a plan that would attract private-sector investment. We tip our hats especially to Chicago developer John T. Murphy, whose father, grandfather and great uncle, medical innovator John B. Murphy, were among the physicians who gave Cook County Hospital its global reputation for teaching and treatment.

The resulting redevelopment is a stunner. Plagiarizing the judgment of Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, another advocate of renovating the hospital: It preserves a powerful symbol of compassionate care for the poor, serendipitously coming amid a pandemic that has seen doctors, nurses and other medical professionals battle heroically against the deadly coronavirus. The project is the anchor of a much-needed, multiphase $1 billion redevelopment that promises to enliven Chicago’s vast but dull Illinois Medical District with new housing, offices and restaurants.

Celebrate a win, Chicago

The project isn’t complete; such unique teaching-hospital features as tiered operating theaters, where young docs learned surgery by watching from on high, have yet to be repurposed.

But these are finishing touches on a rescue project worth its $27 million in historic preservation tax breaks. We applaud the pols and the private sector execs who’ve made it happen.

One more reason to cheer: No politician will have his or her name over the door of the revived Cook County Hospital. That’s consonant with our ongoing editorial campaign to have governmental bodies stop naming things for politicians. Why, we keep wondering, is there no Taxpayers Expressway dedicated not to some elected official, but to the millions of people who paid for it?

So celebrate a win, Chicago. Appreciate the rich history and sensible economics that this project honors. This city has a sketchy record of preserving its most impressive landmarks. Recall how Eleanor Daley, the wife and mother of mayors, helped save the old Chicago Public Library building that’s now the Cultural Center. Yet also mourn the civic failure that, half a century ago, permitted demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building.

Cook County Hospital, too, could be nothing but a memory. Instead, the building revered as “Chicago’s Ellis Island” will keep welcoming people, we hope for another century and beyond.

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.



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