Written by Chris Morris and Jim Peters
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.
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.