New Life for Old Cook County Hospital

Posted on: March 16th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

Written by Chris Morris and Jim Peters  

The massive Beaux-Arts façade of Cook County Hospital makes it an imposing and important presence on Chicago’s Near West Side. (Photo: Landmarks Illinois)

It has taken nine long years to get to this point, but there is finally a ray of hope for Old Cook County Hospital in Chicago. On March 3, 2010, the Cook County commissioners unanimously approved a plan that would renovate the impressive 1912 Beaux-Arts structure into new medical offices for the county’s health care system.  

Once the country’s largest hospital, Old Cook County became familiar to millions of Americans as the setting for numerous films and TV programs. The facility was long the primary source of healthcare for Chicago’s poor and immigrant populations. It has also played a key role in the advancement of medicine by educating generations of healthcare professionals and establishing innovations such as trauma and burn units, the diagnoses of sickle cell anemia, and the country’s first blood bank. However, in 2001, the future of the hospital was in serious doubt following the construction of its replacement right next door. To draw attention to the imminent threat, Landmarks Illinois listed Old Cook County as one of its Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.   

Working with Landmarks Illinois and other local preservation organizations, the National Trust for Historic Preservation joined the battle to save Old Cook County in 2004, listing it as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Places. The listing helped focus national attention on the county’s plans to demolish a building that was viewed by many as “Chicago’s Statue of Liberty.” But in spite of broad support for the building’s preservation, the County remained committed to their plans for demolition, which were estimated to cost as much as $13.6 million. This staggering price tag opened the door to explore other more reasonable alternatives. Landmarks Illinois commissioned a detailed reuse plan for the building featuring design solutions and construction estimates, which they distributed widely to public officials and developers. The reuse plan, combined with widespread public opposition to the proposed demolition, convinced the County to delay the demolition contract for the hospital.   

A press event hosted by local preservation groups and other supporters publicized the history of Cook County Hospital and encouraged its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo: Landmarks Illinois)

It appeared that that the County was finally ready to consider retaining and reusing Old Cook County in 2005 when they commissioned a study to evaluate the long-term space requirements for the hospital campus. Although the final report stated that the massive 1912 building was structurally sound and could be readily adapted for medical office space, it concluded with a recommendation to demolish the former hospital and replace it with a new office building.  

Once again, the preservation community was sent back to the drawing board.  

Hospital supporters on the County Board managed to defer the demolition for many months, placing Old Cook County on the National Register of Historic Places in the process. With this critical designation in place, preservation groups went back to county officials to press for the rehabilitation of the building, this time emphasizing the potential to use federal rehabilitation tax credits as part of the financing. Their persistence paid off when the County commissioned yet another study in 2008, this time exploring new options that were more financially viable.  

Armed with this favorable report, Landmarks Illinois approached each County Board member individually to promote the logic and benefits of reuse. Over the course of many meetings and many weeks, they helped move the deeply divided board toward consensus. Their vote last week was the culmination of years of persistent advocacy efforts. It represents an important step in the right direction to ending many years of conflict on the County Board.   

However, despite the good news, the future of Old Cook County Hospital is not yet secure. The renovation costs of the huge, two-block-long building are estimated at $108 million. The County hopes to secure up to $25 million from the City of Chicago through an existing tax increment financing district, while the remaining rehab costs would be paid through a bond. If the County is not able to get a commitment of sufficient tax increment financing, the project will return to Cook County commissioners one more time to consider other funding solutions.  

Chris Morris is the program officer for the National Trust's Midwest Office. Jim Peters is the president of Landmarks Illinois.

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2 Responses

  1. Troy

    March 18, 2010

    The mindless attempted destruction of these beautiful and relivent structures is a rampant disease based in greed; a game of blame and misdirection to hide contracts for demolition, construction and kickbacks. Here in New Orleans, there is a similar struggle to save the art deco Charity Hospital. The old hospital system was not “profitable” so after huricanne Katrina, LSU (as well as Ocshner and other local for profit hospitals) were intent on using the storm as a convienent way to close the hospital and illiminate the old system by declaring the building as damaged and unsafe, then tearing it down to build new. A similar ploy was used by HUD and the HANO to empty the housing projects,do a land grab and tear down the Lafayette housing project (a great example of masonry building – 3 stroy, copper flashing, etc) and hand out constracts for “new” inferior construction. The fight for Chairty Hospital is still going on, but the city (pushed by developers) is dead set on demo and build new despite studies showing the old hospital could be refurbished and openned both cheaper and sooner than the new yet to be financed new medical complex. I hope both of these beautifully built building, the Old Cook Hospital and Charity Hospital, can be saved.

  2. Andrea Magosky

    May 5, 2010

    My son Seth Magosky did the research nearly 20 yrs ago for the designation of the “Medical Center District” as it is now named with flags. Seth did this project for his class at UIC with Professor Bob Brueggeman over a “summer project”. He was so amazed at the history plus the architecture at Cook County Hospital he began a plea to save the building.