Uncertain Future for Prentice Women's Hospital, a Modern Chicago Landmark

Posted on: October 29th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Chris Morris

Betrand Goldberg's groundbreaking 1974 Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago faces an uncertain future. Northwestern University has not announced any plans for the building, which will be vacant at the end of 2010. (Photo: Landmarks Illinois)

Betrand Goldberg's groundbreaking 1974 Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago faces an uncertain future. Northwestern University has not announced any plans for the building, which will be vacant at the end of 2010. (Photo: Landmarks Illinois)

Completed in 1974, the design of Prentice Women’s Hospital was groundbreaking both in its engineering and the way in which the medical department and services were organized.

The hospital was designed by Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, perhaps best known for his iconic Marina City towers (affectionately called the “corn cobs” by Chicago natives due to their scalloped profile). His unusual and innovative buildings were internationally known and widely acclaimed in the press at the time of their construction. Prentice Women's Hospital received a 1975 award from Engineering News Record for its architectural and engineering innovations.

Although Goldberg’s firm created designs for many hospitals across the country, Prentice Women’s Hospital is by far his most unique and best known example. Its seminal design is composed of a simple glass and steel base surmounted by a seven-story tower with four monolithic concrete lobes attached to a central core. The unique quatrefoil plan of the tower was intended to provide a much higher standard of care by creating small floor plates that facilitated interaction between the staff and patients.  Each floor was laid out in a “village system” with a nursing station in the center of four circular patient rooms; this allowed the nursing staff to be only a few steps from each patient at any time. Because the four lobes of the tower were hung from a central core, all floor plates were free of internal support, which provided more flexibility in the planning and use of the spaces while also giving the nursing staff visual access to all their patients at a glance.

This flexible design was also an effective means to combine a number of functions within a single structure. The building allowed Northwestern Memorial Hospital to consolidate their obstetrics and gynecology departments (Prentice Women’s Hospital), and psychiatry departments (Stone Institute of Psychiatry) under one roof.

The building provided maternity care for several generations of Chicago residents until the new Prentice Women’s Hospital was opened by Northwestern in 2007. Since that time, the tower has been vacated and closed.

While the base still houses the Stone Institute of Psychiatry, the facility will be relocated in 2011. At that point, the building will be completely empty, with no future use identified. When the building is vacant, the property is scheduled to be transferred to Northwestern University, which has expressed a need for new research and laboratory space in this area of the campus.

Since the building is not listed as a local Chicago landmark, local preservation advocates are very concerned that there is no protection in place for Bertrand Goldberg’s Modern masterpiece, should Northwestern decide to demolish the building to create new research facilities.

Preservation organizations including Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago, and docomomo midwest, have been sounding the alarm about Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital for many years. Although the University has not announced any plans for the historic modern structure, the construction of the new Prentice Hospital in 2007 suggested that there may not be any future for Goldberg’s award-winning building.

Working in collaboration with the Midwest Office, the aforementioned groups have designed a number of initiatives to raise awareness of the potential threat to Prentice Hospital and to help gather support from the public, city officials, and Northwestern University for its preservation and reuse.

Landmarks Illinois recently launched a website www.saveprentice.org that contains information on the building and upcoming events, and provides a medium for people to share their connections to and support for historic Prentice Hospital.

Landmarks Illinois also is coordinating a reuse study for this building using grant funding from the Midwest Office, which will explore the feasibility of rehabilitating the building for a range of new functions, including research and laboratory space. The goal is to demonstrate that Goldberg’s innovative design can be adapted for new purposes suitable for the university.

That study is expected to be complete in early 2011, when it will be presented to the public and the local Alderman. The study also will form the foundation for future discussions with Northwestern University about their long-term plans for the building.

Learn more:

Christina Morris is the Illinois Program Officer for the Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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