Preservation, Chicago style

When you land at O’Hare airport and take the intra-airport rail system between terminals, colorful ad strips on the train urge you to come explore the city’s architecture. It’s a pretty rare city that explicitly promotes its architecture as one of its leading attractions.


You might be surprised, then, at how casually the city throws its built environment away, even today. I’m referring, of course, to the recently announced backpedal by the Daley administration on saving the Prairie-style old Main Building at Michael Reese Hospital. Once heralded as the administration’s token gesture toward preservation of the once-dense complex, now it seems that a few break-ins and vandals are the flimsy excuse being used to justify tearing the place down.

It’s nauseating, but who can honestly say they’re surprised?


Michael Reese demolition

In recognition of Landmarks Illinois’s release of their annual 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list today, let’s look back at the single most endangered architectural place in the city of Chicago: Michael Reese Hospital, being destroyed even as I write.

Michael Reese demolition

Michael Reese demolition

Michael Reese demolition

With the demolition of the these buildings, Chicago can lay claim to yet another of its vaunted firsts: it has destroyed more Walter Gropius buildings than anywhere else in the world! Truly a feat to brag about.

Michael Reese demolition

The demolition has magically caused a big retaining wall, a truck trailer storage yard, six railroad tracks, an 8-lane highway, and half a mile of distance to spontaneously vanish from the face of the earth, and now Bronzeville is suddenly connected to the lake, just like the city promised it would be when those dumb old hospital buildings were finally out of the way.

Michael Reese demolition

The city, meanwhile, has announced no development plans for the site. This is almost certainly because so many developers are frantically beating down their door and desperately trying to one-up each other that the city fathers just can’t make up their mind which one to take up.

Michael Reese demolition

Too bad there weren’t any buildings already on the site. Then they wouldn’t have to go and build a bunch of new ones!

Michael Reese demolition

Reader roundup

Some great articles in last week’s and this week’s Reader.

Regarding Michael Reese Hospital and the Olympics:
* Michael Reese Hospital: The First Sacrificial Lamb

Regarding the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago:
* An Odd Way to Honor Burnham – Lynn Becker takes on the process by which the centennial pavilion architects were selected (and, incidentally, slaps down some gibberish from Colin Rowe and his followers about how “there was no Chicago School of architecture”.)

* The Big Aluminum Hot Potato – will the centennial pavilions ever actually be finished?

* Go Ahead, Make Little Plans – a challenge to the Last Four Miles proposal (a plan which, by the by, I support wholeheartedly. It’s ridiculous that one can’t bike to Rogers Park via the lakefront.)

Preliminary Demolition Underway at Michael Reese

The first signs of demolition work have appeared at Michael Reese Hospital.

The round Wexler Pavilion has had two of its windows removed, with Dumpsters placed beneath the openings. Large-scale debris is piled up in the lobby. Recessed light fixtures in the exterior overhangs have been ripped out, likely as part of abatement.

Pavillion and dumpster

The main entry and glass lobby of the Laz Chapman Pavilion (handsomely captured by Lee Bay) has been sealed up tight with plasterboard.


Most alarming, the lovely twin lamps which have long graced the entry of the main building have disappeared. As you can see by the dates here, this is a very recent development, and I’d bet whatever you like that the removal wasn’t legally sanctioned — in other words, somebody stole the lamps.

Michael Reese Main entryway
March 22, 2009

Something's missing!
May 2, 2009

Reese in the Reader

The Chicago Reader’s cover story this week is an excellent article by Lynn Becker, detailing the absurdity of demolishing the Michael Reese Hospital complex:

The Rush to Raze

Michael Reese Main

Point for point, it’s pretty hard to disagree with anything Becker says. He deftly covers all the bases: the propensity for tearing down buildings when they hit the fifty year mark, the vested energy in existing buildings, the sheer volume of landfill that would result from demolition, the architectural merits and pedigree of the complex.

Baumgarten Pavilion

Of particular interest is the notion of bridging the railyards to the east as an alternative site, an option that was inexplicably discarded. If the air rights are available, that should be a no-brainer. Such construction would constitute an expansion of the city’s usable urban space, as well as providing Bronzeville with a much-needed connection to the lakefront. We would have Michael Reese (its buildings renovated and repurposed) sitting next to a second complex of brand new buildings, a chain of urban development leading to the lakefront. Tearing down Reese, by contrast, means destroying a dense development only to replace it with another one, while leaving the complex and the adjoining neighborhood disconnected from the nearby lake.

Michael Reese Service League Power Plant

And beyond that wasted opportunity, the insanity of tearing down a group of buildings that still look like brand new should be patently obvious to… well, anyone. The whole thing smacks of politicians craving the photo-ops of ribbon cuttings and ceremonial first swings of the wrecking ball. Don’t believe the hype. Michael Reese should be renovated, not obliterated.

Through the archway

Additional Links:

  • The Campaign to Save Michael Reese Hospital
  • More photos of Michael Reese Hospital at my Flickr space.
  • Additional info and photos from Lee Bey: City Issues RFQ to Demo Michael Reese
  • Michael Reese at Forgotten Chicago