Northwestern will demolish unique Streeterville building

Prentice to be wrecked

05/25/2011 10:00 PM

Contributing Reporter

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The honeycomb-like towers of the Prentice building — designed by the Marina City architect — have been empty since 2007.

Despite entertaining a number of alternatives, Northwestern University will move forward on plans to demolish the “Old Prentice” hospital building, a university representative said earlier this week.

Northwestern director of facilities management Ron Naylor told Streeterville residents at a public forum on Tuesday that after reviewing a re-use study put together by preservation group Landmarks Illinois, as well as performing their own analysis, the school concluded that rehabbing the 36-year-old Prentice Women’s Hospital — at 333 E. Superior St. — would be financially and structurally unfeasible in the scope of Northwestern’s plans for the site.

According to Naylor’s presentation at the meeting, details such as low ceilings, aged electrical wiring and inadequate “vibration criteria” were among the factors that make Prentice unfit to house the university’s planned medical research facility.

“When we looked at it in detail, we found irresolvable problems,” he said.

The forthcoming facility, which has yet to be designed, will create 2,000 full-time jobs and attract millions in research grants for the school annually, said Naylor.

Landmarks’ study, which was released in late April, proposed three redevelopment options for Prentice: a residential project, which envisioned 112 high-rise apartments, a research complex that would hold 800 staff members and an office development. Each proposal called for a full re-use of the building’s towers and an aesthetic make-over for the structure’s glass and steel base.

While lauding the group for its comprehensive look at the project, Naylor said that Landmarks’ proposals failed to meet the “building efficiency” standards that would make rehabbing Prentice as a medical facility a practical option for Northwestern.

Also, he said, the school is not looking to get into the residential and commercial markets at this time.

Jim Peters, president of Landmarks, said that Northwestern’s critique, while thorough, had failed to recognize the potential of Prentice.

“It really predisposes the solution,” he said. “This is a use that they are convinced can’t fit in the building, and that’s why we came up with these other options.”

Designed and built by Marina City architect Bertrand Goldberg, the honeycomb-like towers of the Prentice building (once a maternity ward) have been empty since 2007.

Knowing that the building was a likely target for the wrecking ball, preservationists have since lobbied local and state landmarking authorities to grant protections for Prentice. Those efforts produced little results, save for an eligibility nomination from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency in 2010.

In March, Northwestern announced plans to raze Prentice after it regains ownership of the building later this year from Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which currently operates a psychiatric institute in the structure’s base.

Citing concerns from the preservation community, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) petitioned Northwestern to postpone its application for a demolition permit for 60 days so that Landmarks could draw up and present its study. University officials agreed to Reilly’s request, but maintained that they would more than likely resume preparations for teardown after the delay expires on June 1.

While the plans for Prentice have received distinctive jeers from the architecture community (the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects submitted their support for the building’s preservation earlier this week), resident sentiment over Northwestern’s plan has been harder to gauge, said Brian Hopkins, president of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents.

Hopkins said that his membership is equally split between those who want to see the building kept intact, those who think Northwestern should be left decide the future of the property and those who have yet to take a side.

“It’s somewhat hard to predict where people are coming down on this issue,” he said.

Hopkins said he hoped to have an official recommendation from his group by the end of the month.

But with less than a week left before the holding period comes to an end, the fate of Prentice seems all but decided. Without facing any landmark or historic registry safeguards, Northwestern will be free to begin demolition on the building directly after obtaining the necessary permits.

Naylor said that the school could even begin working on the top floors of the tower while the hospital’s psych ward wraps up its operations below.

Peters said that the situation at Prentice is unfortunately common, and one that might have been averted if the city’s landmarking commission had taken the opportunity to determine whether the building is an architecturally significant part of Chicago’s landscape.

“If it’s not, fine,” he said, “but if it is, and we’re tearing it down, then shame on us.”

The forum, held at the John Hancock Center, was hosted by SOAR.

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