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Save Prentice or save lives

Northwestern's demolition campaign stoops to conquer

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Chalk up at least one for the preservationists. They scored a first-round victory last week, when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks finally committed to putting Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital building on its agenda this fall.

A landmark designation for the iconic structure would spare it from imminent destruction by Northwestern University, which wants to build a medical research center on the site.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is doing a pretty good job of blowing itself up, insisting that Chicago must choose between "saving lives" and saving Prentice, and conducting a propaganda campaign with all the finesse of a bulldozer.

The landmarks commission's announcement, made by chairman Rafael M. Leon at its September 6 meeting, comes after a year of lobbying by preservationists and in the midst of a massive counteroffensive by Northwestern. The university's been scrambling to make its case with the public for the last few weeks, since more than 70 well-known architects, including six Pritzker Architecture Prize winners, signed a letter asking Mayor Rahm Emanuel to save the building, which, as structural engineer William F. Baker wrote, is the result of a "revolutionary" design process and "the only example of its type, anywhere in the world."

The day before the commission meeting, NU's own, considerably shorter, list of architects in favor of demolition showed up in the Sun-Times. Columnist Michael Sneed reported that the mayor had received letters urging him to let NU take Prentice down from James Goettsch and Michael Kaufman of Goettsch Partners, Jeff Case of Holabird & Root, Charles Smith of Cannon Design, HOK's Dan Mitchell and Todd Halamka, and James R. DeStefano, founding principal of DeStefano Partners.

NU apparently neglected to mention that every one of these architects' firms has done work for Northwestern University or its sibling, Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Cannon Design, for example, was the architect for the Prentice Women's Hospital that replaced Goldberg's building in 2007. HOK did the new quarters for Northwestern Memorial's Norman and Ida Stone Institute of Psychiatry, Holabird & Root did the Galter Health Sciences Library, and Goettsch is the architectural firm for NU's $117 million Bienen School of Music, now under construction on the Evanston campus. And this wasn't an entirely spontaneous architects-for-destruction movement: Northwestern, which just might have some major commissions coming up, solicited the support.

The university’s running full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune featuring a larger-than-life image of an irresistible child under the headline “Where will her cure be found?”

NU also sent an urgent mass e-mail to its alumni, staff, and "friends," asking them to click a link or pick up a phone and tell Emanuel to let the university go ahead and destroy Prentice in order to build. Apparently unfettered by its position as a bastion of truth seeking and enlightenment, NU didn't bother to make its alumni and friends aware that many of the world's most renowned architects think the building should be saved, or that there could be other potential locations for a new medical research center, including an empty square block right across the street from Prentice (site of the former VA hospital, now owned by NMH) or the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's soon-to-be abandoned quarters next door. As of last week, more than 1,200 NU supporters had contacted the mayor.

Then, on the morning of the commission meeting, Northwestern revealed that it had surveyed the public and found "overwhelming support" for its plan to build a new medical center on the Prentice site. According to NU spokesman Alan K. Cubbage, "after hearing arguments from both sides," 72 percent of Chicago residents "said they favored the new building."

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