The name is legendary, but I’d never seen the place at all until a few weeks ago, and not till this weekend did I pay it a careful visit.
Cook County Hospital’s 1913 main building stretches for two city blocks, and is the preeminent example of Beaux Arts architecture in the city of Chicago. It has long been the centerpiece of a densely developed parcel of land, even as urban renewal, decay, parking lots, and freeway construction (all equal blights on society) have smashed the surrounding neighborhoods into oblivion.
Sadly, they’re tearing down the building’s rear wings, Children’s Hospital and power plant, a complex of structures added in 1914, 1916 and 1926. It’s a compromise — for a long time, the County wanted to tear down the entire building, magnificent front facade and all.
The rear pavilions aren’t great works of art, but they have several merits — a creative floor plan that brought natural light to many acres of floor area, and a dense complexity that makes the building look like a city unto itself (much akin to St. Louis’s City Hospital, a likewise neutered complex).
Demolition’s nothing new to this neighborhood. For fifty years, the prevailing wisdom in this part of town has been the same lunacy that has driven so much of our so-called “urban renewal”: in order to save it, we must destroy it. This was the view around the hospital some while before the freeway came through:
And here is the same area, showing the disastrous results of fifty years of “progress”:
A dense, walkable urban environment has become a wasteland of vast parking lots and roaring limited-access lanes. Whatever happens to Cook County Hospital, the most vital battle was lost long ago.
(Also darkly hilarious is the formal park laid out in front of the hospital — half of it has been stripped of its trees and turned into a helicopter landing pad. Tragic on the surface, but who’s around to actually use the thing?)