August 21, 2020

(This article originally appeared in the August 2020 edition of The Arch newsletter)

Landmarks Illinois began advocating for the preservation of Old Cook County Hospital — the grand Beaux Arts structure spanning two city blocks on Chicago’s Near West Side — in 1998. At the time, many people (including elected officials) said it was crazy to try to save the behemoth of a building already slated for demolition — it was too big, too expensive and too difficult to reuse, we were told. Yet Landmarks Illinois refused to give up, insisting the former hospital, built in 1913-1916 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, was too architecturally and culturally significant to be torn down.

More than two decades after first calling for reuse of Old Cook County Hospital, Landmarks Illinois is celebrating the building’s grand reopening this summer as a hotel, retail and office complex following an impressive $140 million renovation, led by Civic Health Development Group, which includes Murphy Development Group and Walsh Construction.

“It’s hugely gratifying to see over 20 years of advocacy pay off,” said Landmarks Illinois Director of Advocacy Lisa DiChiera. “Many individuals put their heart and soul into this long effort, and I am so happy to mark this milestone with them.”

(Pictured: Landmarks Illinois Director of Advocacy Lisa DiChiera tours the halls of the former hospital in 2014, years before it would be rehabilitated. Credit: Jack Tribbia.)

Among Landmarks Illinois’ preservation partners during the 22-year effort to save Old Cook County Hospital is Joe Antunovich and his firm Antunovich Associates, which put thousands of pro-bono hours into producing multiple reuse studies for the building and attended dozens of public hearings alongside Landmarks Illinois staff. Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin also should be credited for being a strong advocate for the building’s reuse and for pushing his colleagues to change their minds on demolition. Additionally, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was monumental in negotiating and ensuring a preservation path forward for the historic structure. Landmarks Illinois will always be grateful to her and her team.

In rehabilitating the long-vacant Old Cook County Hospital, developers have created a 210-room hotel and provided 25,000 square feet of retail space and 75,000 square feet of medical office space. This marks the completion of Phase 1 in an overall, four-phase redevelopment plan for what will be called Harrison Square. The plan includes the 1.2 million square-foot former hospital building and surrounding area.

“The old Cook County Hospital is rich in history, having served our community and nation for over a century, while at the same time being a fountain of medical research, innovation and advancements,” said Dan Walsh, Co-chairman of The Walsh Group. “The Walsh Group is proud to have played a lead role in saving and transforming this unique historic structure, and delivering a reborn building that welcomes visitors and economic revival to the Near West Side of Chicago for another 100 years.”

(Pictured: Landmarks Illinois’ team of preservation, legal and architecture experts gather in Landmarks Illinois’ office in 2014 preparing for a Cook County-sponsored charrette to develop a reuse solution for Old Cook County Hospital. Pictured (clockwise from lower left): Bonnie McDonald, Anne Voshel, Joe Antunovich, Jim Mann, Krista Gnatt, Clark Christenson and John Tully.)

Part of our state’s pandemic recovery

This major rehabilitation project would be remarkable at any time in our state and nation’s history. The fact that it is happening now, in the middle of a worldwide health crisis, makes the project even more monumental. Old Cook County, a former teaching hospital, made numerous major medical discoveries during its time in operation: It is where sickle cell anemia was discovered, for example, and it was home to the world’s first blood bank. It was also called Chicago’s “Ellis Island,” because it served and welcomed immigrants coming to the city.

In a May 2020 Chicago Tribune article on the rehabilitation of Old Cook County Hospital, Architecture Critic Blair Kamin wrote, “It preserves a powerful symbol of compassionate care for the poor, serendipitously coming amid a pandemic that has seen doctors, nurses and other medical professionals battle heroically against the deadly coronavirus.”

Landmarks Illinois included the Old Cook County Hospital on the Most Endangered list four times between the years 2001 and 2005 — only one of two structures included on the annual list that many times. It is also Landmarks Illinois’ longest advocacy effort for a single building. Preservation Chicago included the building on its 2003 and 2004 “Chicago 7 Most Endangered” list, as well, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation called attention to it on its 2004 America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

DiChiera, who was involved with the advocacy effort from Day 1, knew saving Old Cook County Hospital would take time. But she also knew it was worth it. The building had everything the preservation field represents: great architecture and extremely important social history. Plus, its reuse would create jobs and economic activity – two critical things needed as Chicago and Illinois recover from the current pandemic.

“This place had an impact on the lives of thousands of Chicagoans of all races, nationalities, incomes and medical needs,” said DiChiera. “No one was turned away. Its rehabilitation proves how an investment in repurposing a building like this is a major jobs creator, jobs training opportunity and will be an economic driver for future investment in the area. Lastly, allowing an irreplaceable, reusable building of this magnitude to go into a landfill would have been environmentally catastrophic.”

(Pictured: Bonnie McDonald and Lisa DiChiera of Landmarks Illinois are among the many people to celebrate the official groundbreaking of the redevelopment of the former hospital in 2018. Credit Richard Friedman.)

Preservation is for people

For as many people who doubted the viability of reusing Old Cook County — such a large and long-vacant building — there are just as many who still cherish this highly visible place that sits prominently along the highway as people enter downtown Chicago from the west.

“So many people love this building,” DiChiera said, “Whether it’s because someone was born there, was treated there, worked there or because they have seen it all their lives driving on the Eisenhower.”

For those people, Landmarks Illinois persevered for 22 years to save this impressive and important place.

(Top photo credit: Walsh Construction)

Download the full August 2020 edition of The Arch newsletter below.

The Arch, August 2020

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