There’s an uphill battle to preserve Modernist buildings. First of all, most of the examples in the U.S. were built after World War II so non-preservationists often don’t see the point of saving them. And many people don’t like Modernist architecture because can seem cold with with the industrial materials and straight lines. The sustainability argument can only get you so far if people don’t like the architecture and adapting for a new use isn’t cost feasible. Invoking the importance of saving works by famous architects is a challenge, even if the architect’s name is Frank Lloyd Wright. But if preservationists concentrate on the human connections to Modernist buildings, they’re destined to be more successful. Oh, and having a viable preservation plan helps, too.
The recently shuttered Michael Reese Hospital campus in Chicago consists of 29 structures. Walter Gropius, the father of Modernist architecture, was the consulting architect and planner for eight of those buildings in the 1940s and 50s. The hospital’s 37 acres were to be the site of the Olympic Village had Chicago won the 2016 Games with all but one of the structures, the Prairie Style main hospital built in 1905, destined to meet the wrecking ball. The city bought the property for $80 million in preparation. Even though Chicago didn’t get the Olympics, the city plans to clear the land anyway and have it redeveloped as a residential area. A contractor was hired to demolish the buildings in the summer, and some work has already started.
The Gropius in Chicago Coalition is fighting to save the buildings overseen by Gropius. The eight structures are the only in Illinois to have ties to Gropius because he was based in Boston after leaving Germany during the rise of Hitler. With Michael Reese Hospital’s proximity to the Illinois Institute of Technology and its Mies van der Rohe designed campus, GCC wants a “Bauhaus Historic District” (Gropius and van der Rohe were the first two heads of the influential Bauhaus architecture school in Germany).
I applaud the GCC for calling attention to Gropius’ little known work in Chicago, but I think they need to alter their approach. Invoking Gropius is sure to get the attention of the design community, but outside of that tiny segment of the population how many people are aware of Walter Gropius? Plus, it’s easy to dismiss ties to him because he merely consulted on the project.
What the GCC needs to do is get the community members involved who couldn’t care less about Gropius. People should be reminded why the hospital was so important to the people it served, whether they worked or visited there. Maybe then they’ll be interested in keeping it around. GCC does a good job of quickly summing up the non-Gropius importance of Michael Reese Hospital in its flier, but the ideas aren’t fleshed out on their site.
If there’s enough support for preservation, GCC first needs to figure out how it’s going to be paid for. Next, a charrette or design competition should be held to come up with a plan for adaptive reuse of the buildings. I’m guessing there’s a reason it’s no longer seeing use as hospital. What about the non-Gropius buildings? Are they not worthy of preservation just because Gropius didn’t have a hand in them? The GCC needs to at least consider their preservation. They wouldn’t be responsible preservationists if they didn’t. And maybe if GCC lowers their expectations and just concentrate on saving the most architecturally important structures or the most adaptable for new use, they will find success. Something is better than nothing.
Here are Michael Reese Hospital buildings with all photos courtesy of savemrh.com.