Old Prentice loses again in landmark vote
Feb 08, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
For the second time in three months, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted to remove preliminary landmark status for old Prentice Women's Hospital, considered by some an icon of modern architecture.
The commission's decision Thursday, by a unanimous vote, could mark the end of a bitter contest between preservationists and Northwestern University, which wants to build a new research facility on the site of old Prentice on East Superior Street in the Streeterville neighborhood.
But the bulldozers won't run just yet.
In response to an appeal by preservationists, a stay order issued by a Cook County judge remains in effect for the commission's initial decision to rescind landmark status until the next court hearing Feb. 15.
Nonetheless, the commission's vote seemed to move the issue in Northwestern's favor. University spokesman Alan Cubbage said the university was "very pleased" with Thursday's decision, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a statement saying, "I applaud the landmarks commission for its thoughtfulness in considering this matter."
Preservationists were disappointed by the commission's vote, said attorney Michael Rachlis, speaking for the Save Prentice coalition. He pointed to a statement before the vote by Commissioner James Houlihan, who said he was uncomfortable with Northwestern's argument that if it didn't get the old Prentice site for a new building, its research program would suffer.
"Northwestern University has put us in a difficult, a false position," Houlihan said, noting that he was voting reluctantly for the motion to rescind preliminary landmark status.
The commission's vote Thursday was an indirect result of a challenge made by preservationists to the body's actions last November. The commission voted to grant old Prentice preliminary landmark status and then immediately, at the same meeting, revoked it on the basis of an economic impact study.
The preservationists' lawsuit against the commission was dismissed in January by Cook County Judge Neil Cohen, who said an Illinois Supreme Court ruling barred him from reviewing the action of an administrative body like the landmarks commission.
But Cohen gave preservationists 30 days to refile their case. He also told city attorneys he was troubled by the commission's "nontransparent" actions. Cohen said it might be proper for the commission to take the vote again.
The commission took the judge's suggestions, putting old Prentice on its agenda well before Thursday's meeting. Rafael Leon, chairman of the landmarks commission, began the rehearing of the issue Thursday by acknowledging the judge's criticism. While denying the commission had done anything wrong, he said the resolution was being voted on again "to ensure that the commission was above reproach."
The commission's action Thursday could render the preservationists' lawsuit moot. If so, it would bring to an end a long and bitter struggle punctuated with alternating chess moves by supporters and detractors of old Prentice. The distinctive four-leaf-clover-shaped concrete tower, which some consider a distinctive piece of Chicago architecture and others dismiss as ungainly, was designed in the 1970s by celebrated Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, better known for Marina City along the Chicago River.
Yet preservationists opened another potential legal front at Thursday's meeting. They insisted that old Prentice should have been discussed in a full hearing at which expert testimony would be given and subject to cross-examination.
Mardell Nereim, chief assistant corporation counsel, who was present, rejected that argument. But preservationists could make it part of their revised court filing, which is due Monday.
Old Prentice first came before the landmark commission in June 2011. But discussion of the issue was postponed for months. Leon explained the delay by noting that Emanuel had just come into office. In the 18-month interval, both sides mounted expensive public relations campaigns. Preservationists circulated a petition signed by distinguished architects that demanded old Prentice be spared. Northwestern urged alumni to lobby the city on behalf of its proposal to demolish the hospital so it could be replaced with a modern research facility.
The issue gained fresh steam in November after Emanuel wrote an op-ed published in the Tribune endorsing Northwestern's position. Later the same day, the landmarks commission put the question on its agenda for that month. At the meeting that followed, the commission took the highly unusual step of voting old Prentice up and down, in rapid succession.
That's the decision preservationists took to court.
The controversy over old Prentice has drawn considerable attention across the nation and abroad. Chicago is renowned as the birthplace of modern architecture. The landmark ordinance under which the issue of old Prentice has been judged was enacted in response to the demolition of seminal works by Louis Sullivan, the great pioneer of modern design.
"Chicago is known for tearing down better buildings than other cities build," said Scott Rappe, vice president of the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
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