I always saw it as a stubborn concrete spaceship that had landed amid a bunch of squares, and I never met a Chicagoan who liked it. In a city renowned for its architecture—the Hancock Center, Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), Marina City—Prentice Women’s Hospital was an ugly stepchild that had fallen out of use. Rather than gaining protective landmark status for this piece of history, Northwestern has been permitted to demolish it.
Of course, the entire story is more complicated than that. An excellent, seven-minute documentary by Nathan Eddy puts the whole debate into perspective. I’d urge you to watch it.
Prentice Women’s Hospital is nestled between buildings in Northwestern University’s downtown medical campus—priceless real estate that splits the city’s ritzy Michigan Avenue and gorgeous, undeveloped lakefront. I’d once heard a rumor that this brutalist structure, with its tiny porthole windows and round rooms, was built as a mental hospital. Stupidly, I believed it.
In reality, Prentice was always intended to be a modernized maternity ward. Architect Bertrand Goldberg (who also designed the aforementioned Marina City towers) designed Prentice after meticulously researching the flaws with health care infrastructure. And his solution was, in true Goldberg fashion, inspired by nature. Patient rooms bloomed like petals from a flower, enabling a nurse in the middle to attend to each expectant mother with equal readiness instead of running down some long corridor. In practice, the petal design had its downfalls—chief among them that the narrow center doorways made for a tight squeeze when emergency crash carts came into play. That practical factoid reminds me a lot of when I first moved to the city years ago and looked at a rental in Marina City. As excited as I’d been at the prospect of living in an icon of architectural history right on the river, and as solid as the square footage was for the price, I found that the apartment’s expansive balconies made the inside surprisingly dark, and that it was hard to fill a triangle with the furnishing-efficiency you expect of a rectangle. So we rented in a tiny, soulless box somewhere else.
But I did live within two blocks of Prentice for several years. I walked by it countless times, always noting it among the mass of generic teal-windowed buildings that have increasingly dominated Northwestern’s landscape. Those buildings have each looked dated since the day their ribbon was cut, but inside, you’ll find some of the most impressive health care accommodations in the world. At the new Prentice hospital, I visited family who’d just had a child. Their room, complete with a 42-inch TV and lake view, was more like a hotel than any medical facility I knew. (I’ll be hoping to reserve such a room at Prentice for the birth of my own baby next year.) And their new children’s hospital around the corner, while a bland waste of skyline on the outside, boasts a wonderland including a 30-foot whale sculpture and full size, handicap-accessible firetruck cabin. When you consider all the effort that’s gone into making a sick child’s life just a bit better during long-term treatment, it’s easy to tear up a bit.
Goldberg’s Prentice will be replaced by a $370 million biomedical research facility that, as Northwestern reps argue strongly in the above documentary, will advance science at a scale the concrete flower could not. They aren’t wrong. Even if architects could have retrofitted the structure, even if they could have wrapped Goldberg’s vision of health care’s future with a more modern vision of health care’s future, there still would have been a chunk of sub-optimal airspace in a dense urban pocket. And science exists to optimize, not compromise. That said, we still have a whole lot of undeveloped land here in the midwest, and so much of Chicago could use a $370 million cash injection. (As infeasible as it may be, I wonder how much one such building could boost the economy and welfare of our southside.)
I’m upset that Northwestern shut down opposition without serious debate. I’m upset that I’ll never point out the strange spaceship building while walking my child to an appointment in the neighborhood. I’m upset that wanting to save Prentice while making use of Northwestern’s more modern facilities makes me at least a bit of a hypocrite.
But if somebody in that new building cures cancer? I’ll get over it.