Completed in 1975 in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, the Prentice Women’s Hospital seems too new to be considered a historic building, but a pending demolition has preservationists up in arms. Architect Bertrand Goldberg, who is more famous for designing the nearby Marina City’s twin “corncob” towers, spent over three years designing the hospital and left behind an important piece of modern architecture.
From a functional standpoint, Goldberg first wanted to bring doctors and nurses into closer contact with patients, which meant housing patients in round “pods” rather than along right-angled corridors. Second, he wanted to eliminate blind spots caused by support columns, so he designed the building so that its structural supports were distributed between its central support, which housed the elevators and nurse’s station on each floor, and its curvy concrete shell. This gave the building a floor plan that allowed for high visibility and flexibility.
In a recent article in Vantity Fair, Paul Goldberger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic and writer for The New Yorker, attributes great architectural significance to the Prentice building and has calls for its preservation. He writes,
It’s a key building in the history of structural engineering, and its unusual form, a poured-concrete cantilevered shell, has few if any equals in modern engineering. Almost nothing else looks like this building, and in a world of carbon-copy architecture, its loopy, futuristic curves are unique: a concrete rocket ship amid Chicago’s glass boxes. A little weird, yes, but the more you look at it, the more you like it. More significant still, it’s an exceptionally important building in the evolution of health-care design, incorporating new ideas about the connection between architecture and childbirth. The cloverleaf plan was intended to create “quiet villages” of patient rooms, encouraging family-oriented childbirth, one of the first times this idea was essential to a hospital’s design. Beyond making health-care history, Prentice made architectural technology history, too: it was designed using an early form of computer modeling, making it, in effect, a guinea pig for the digital systems by which almost everything is now designed.
Northwestern University, the building’s owner, has talked of tearing down the now outdated building for months to make way for a new research building, but preservationists want to keep the quartrefoil (that’s “clover-shaped”) icon around, even if it means repurposing it into a hotel or offices. For Goldberger, the either-or proposition of new development and historical preservation is an unnecessary one. He writes, “Chicago, in this instance, could have both, since it’s possible to preserve Prentice for a new use and still allow Northwestern to expand its facilities. It just takes some imagination. And that’s just what seems lacking right now in the nation’s first city of architecture.”
If you’re interested in the preservation of this building, here’s what you can do to help:
Write: a letter to city officials in support of reuse of the building.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Office of the Mayor
City of Chicago
121 N. LaSalle St.
Chicago, IL 60602
Alderman Brendan Reilly
Office of the 42nd Ward
325 W. Huron, Suite 510
Chicago IL, 60654
Join: the Save Prentice Facebook page at SavePrentice.org.
Sign: the Save Prentice Hospital Petition.
Images from Chicago Modern