Melissa Harris' Chicago Confidential
September 16, 2012
The clash between Northwestern University and preservationists over the fate of Bertrand Goldberg's old Prentice Women's Hospital is expected to climax as early as Oct. 4 when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks could begin weighing the merits of preserving the Streeterville structure.
Northwestern, which owns the now-vacant hospital, and preservationists opposed to its demolition have hired well-connected strategists to guide their advertising and PR campaigns.
It's obvious how Northwestern can afford it all. The university sat atop a reported $7.2 billion endowment as of August 2011, among the largest of its kind in the country.
Less obvious is the primary source of funding for the preservationists: the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, which put old Prentice on its list of America's 11 most-endangered sites in 2011 and has named it one of its "national treasures."
Christina Morris, a senior field officer in the preservation trust's Chicago office, declined to disclose how much the trust is spending on its campaign to save Prentice.
IRS records show that the trust held about $230 million in assets at the end of 2010. That amount still paints Northwestern as a goliath. But the trust's participation would seem to deny preservationists the label "David."
"This is definitely the most involved we have been in a Chicago site to my knowledge," said Morris, who pushed to get old Prentice recognized as endangered within her own organization. "That's the point of our national treasures approach. We get involved very, very intensely in a specific number of locations."
The preservationists — Morris, Bonnie McDonald of Landmarks Illinois, architect Gunny Harboe and Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago — hired Eric Herman, managing director of issue- and corporate-advocacy firm ASGK. He's also a Northwestern alumnus and former Chicago Sun-Times reporter. The team has worked to poke holes in a university poll conducted via telephone, which found — not surprisingly — that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed supported putting a new medical research center on the old Prentice site.
The Chicago Reader also pointed out that architects Northwestern lined up in support of demolition have all done work for the university or its teaching hospital in Streeterville, Northwestern Memorial Hospital. (The list of pro-demolition architects has since grown to include people whose connections to the university aren't as obvious.)
Although both sides continue to pit architects against each other — preservationists recently enrolled Renzo Piano — university officials have honed their message around the estimated 2,000 jobs the new research center would create. The university's strategy is being crafted with the help of Chris Mather, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's former communications director who recently opened a Chicago office for Purple Strategies, a Virginia-based public affairs firm.
Mather is in regular contact with Eugene Sunshine, Northwestern's senior vice president for business and finance and the school's point person on this matter.
University leadership is also involved. William Osborn, a retired banking executive and chair of the university's board of trustees, said in a Thursday interview that trustees would be briefed at their board meeting the next day. He also said he is aware of "everything that's going on," whether his approval is needed or not.
Osborn also is a board member at Tribune Co., parent company of the Chicago Tribune. He and other senior Northwestern officials recently met with Emanuel to discuss their plans.
"When you get down to it, what is the right thing to do?" Osborn said. "This is our property. We're trying to do the right thing for Chicago. We're trying to build more research space. We're trying to bring good jobs to Chicago. We want something that looks nice. We're wanting to be a great corporate citizen. And it seems ironic that we're getting push-back on that, particularly in these economic times."
Preservationists argue, however, there's nothing standing in the way of Northwestern creating jobs in Streeterville. The old building is easy to repurpose, given Goldberg's use of open floor plans, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital owns a vacant tract across the street.
Goldberg is best known for designing the two corncob-shaped towers on the Chicago River, called Marina City. Old Prentice also has a barreled style but it's a less unified one. It looks like a Martian spaceship landing atop a Mies van der Rohe building. The style fell out of vogue long ago, yet no one could argue old Prentice is anything but one of a kind.
"Prentice represents a larger threat to modern architecture, not just in Chicago but across the country," Morris said. "We're seeing more and more of these buildings that are 30 to 40 to 50 years old essentially being threatened with the wrecking ball because that's a really delicate time frame for buildings. They're not quite old enough for people to consider them historic, but they're old enough that people don't feel like they're new and that it's time for them to be upgraded or replaced."
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