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Prentice Women's Hospital Gets Landmark Do-Over, But Same Result Likely

By Ted Cox | February 7, 2013 10:02am
 Prentice Women's Hospital will get one last shot at salvation.
Prentice Women's Hospital will get one last shot at salvation.
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Landmarks Illinois

CHICAGO — Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital is getting another shot at earning landmark status — but it isn't likely to alter its fate.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks is planning to retrace its steps on a hearing for the old Prentice Women's Hospital in a bid to settle a legal dispute Thursday. But whether it's simply going through the motions for the benefit of the courts or really reconsidering protection for the structure remains to be seen.

At a marathon November meeting in the Chicago City Council Chamber, the commission rushed through the process, first finding that Prentice met basic standards for landmark status, then deciding the economic-impact study delivered by the Department of Housing and Economic Development trumped that ruling. The whiplash decision was decried as a "charade" by architectural preservationists.

 James Houlihan and Tony Hu weigh testimony at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks' meeting on Prentice Women's Hospital in November.
James Houlihan and Tony Hu weigh testimony at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks' meeting on Prentice Women's Hospital in November.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

A suit to block the decision was dismissed last month in Cook County Circuit Court, but Judge Neil Cohen was receptive to the argument that the process had been hurried.

The commission typically finds first on whether a structure meets eligibility requirements for preservation, then assigns DHED to do the economic-impact study for consideration at a later time. Cohen found it suspicious that the commission had the DHED study prepared for consideration beforehand, and it followed immediately upon the initial eligibility vote. He called the timing "arbitrary and not transparent."

The commission voted unanimously that Prentice met the initial standards for preservation, but then only Commissioner Christopher Reed voted against accepting the DHED determination that the economic-impact study countermanded that. Cohen basically reset the process back to the initial vote, and before the second.

"If the testimony is pretty much the same, I would guess we would end up finding ourselves in the same place," Commissioner James Houlihan, former Cook County assessor, said Wednesday.

A revised report by DHED, prepared for Thursday's meeting and included in its agenda, arrives at the same conclusion: "The civic and economic impact of Northwestern's proposed research program outweighs the relative importance of maintaining the former Prentice building as an architectural landmark."

Yet Houlihan insisted the nine-person commission was open to arguments that Prentice could be repurposed for the role Northwestern seeks for the site as a research facility — if they're convincing.

"If that is significantly different and new, it might be a different result, but I don't know if it will be," Houlihan said.

Preservationists have argued that the old Prentice could be repurposed, and they figure to try to bolster that case Thursday. They have also decried how Northwestern University's plans for a research facility to replace Prentice include additional animal testing.

The Save Prentice Coalition released a statement saying Thursday's meeting violates the Landmarks Ordinance and calling for a full hearing on the issue.

"The coalition encourages the commission to keep this process transparent and non-preordained, to base its decision on the proper considerations and to follow the letter and spirit of the Landmark Ordinance with respect to this important and historic building," the statement said.

Yet the coalition and other preservationists figure to be there to try to make their case anyway at Thursday's 12:45 p.m. meeting, even though it's set for the smaller Cook County Board meeting room on the fifth floor of the County Building, 118 N. Clark St.

Houlihan allowed how Prentice was "innovative at the time" of its opening in 1975 and said both his children had been born there. He cited how the convenient nearby nursery was a step forward, and other architectural experts have cited how the clover-leaf design, with a central nurse's station serving rooms radiating out, proved influential with the new Rush University Medical Center addition.

Yet critics have attacked the building's looks and say it's long been vacant and obsolete. Former 42nd Ward Ald. Burton Natarus has called the structure farshimmelt, Yiddish for confused.

"It's not a good building," he said.