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Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Cook County Hospital To Be Partly Saved Under New Plan

County Hospital is worthy of historic listing, city says - Johnathon E. Briggs (Chicago Tribune, August 4)

Now the Cook County Board of Commissioners (finally sans John Stroger) seems unanimously in favor of preservation of abandoned Cook County Hospital, with one major exception: the rear pavilion wings. Perhaps the board saw the example set in St. Louis by the unfortunate selective demolition of parts of City Hospital; perhaps they felt the need to cave to that gloriously commanding myth, Reality. Whatever they have done, the Board's preference shows a willful ignorance of the hospital's architectural importance, which lies almost as much in its innovative layout and massing as it does in the design of its primary elevation.

Then again, when many preservationists are inclined to think of buildings first in terms of their facade designs, how many lay people going to make informed opinions on buildings like Cook County Hospital?

The odd thing about the Board's new stance is that one of its members, Mike Quigley, has offered a nomination of the hospital to the National Register of Historic Places that apparently tries to separate the main building from the wings. The city's Landmarks Commission has approved the nomination with instructions to leave the wings out of the nomination, a command that seems contrary to the standards of the National Park Service regarding connected structures. Those standards dictate that buildings that are interconnected have to be nominated together, even if the criteria for significance is something other than architecture. I don't envision the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office or the National Park Service eager to approve a nomination that is predicated on the planned demolition of an addition that is obviously a contributing part of a complex of buildings. Of course, the wings can be listed and then demolished, but tax credits may not be available.

If a conversion to residential space is contemplated for the hospital, the more square footage preserved increases profitable space. That seems like an obvious fact with Cook County Hospital, just as it did with City Hospital. Then again, big buildings always instill big fears in developers, architects and politicians.

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