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Architectural Icon Faces Uncertain Future

Prentice Women's Hospital
 Northwestern University wants to demolish the sculptural concrete building at 333 East Superior Street in Chicago, designed by Bertrand Goldberg and once home to the Prentice Women’s Hospital, to make way for a medical research facility with precise load and vibration-control requirements. Preservationists would like to see the building reused. Wikimedia Commons/Umbugbene

The former Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, a unique Bertrand Goldberg design, sits vacant as preservationists and Northwestern University attempt to plead their case before city officials. 

August 21, 2012—The sculptural concrete building at 333 East Superior Street in Chicago, once home to the Prentice Women’s Hospital, was designed with graceful organic curves and arches to serve as a humane place for women to give birth. Today the labor focuses on working out the future of the vacant building, a Bertrand Goldberg design that employs unique structural engineering solutions to cantilever 7 stories of curved hospital wards above the structure’s base.

Goldberg, a student of the Bauhaus in Germany in the early 1930s, designed the Prentice Building in 1970. A four-story square base is topped by a seven-story, cloverleaf design in which the floors are cantilevered from a central concrete core that houses the elevators and stairwells.

“Prentice can be mistaken for no other building in the world. It is truly unique,” says Jonathan Fine, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, which has included the building on its Chicago Seven list, a compilation of endangered buildings in the Windy City, since 2004, when Northwestern Memorial Hospital began plans to vacate the structure.

“[Goldberg] was an early innovator, particularly with Marina City in 1964,” Fine says. “But Prentice is actually, from an engineering point of view, a more daring concept. Those exterior walls are actually load bearing, and he was able to transfer that load back to the central core by turning four roman arches at a diagonal, crisscrossing them, and transferring all of that load back to the central core of the building.”

The building was constructed by Northwestern Memorial Hospital on land leased from Northwestern University. When the hospital vacated the building, ownership was transferred to the University, which has plans to double the medical research efforts at the school. The University plans to demolish the structure to make way for a large medical research laboratory facility, according to Ron Nayler, the University’s associate vice president for facilities management.

The University hired a team of Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., of Pasadena, California, which has teams that specialize in laboratory design, as well as Thornton Tomasetti, Inc., of New York City, and Affiliated Engineers, of Madison, Wisconsin, to determine if the Prentice Building could be reused as a medical laboratory.

“There were a number of other problems with the building, but two things that became absolutely critical had to do with the structure,” Nayler says. “The live load in the structure is only an average of 60 pounds per sq ft. [For] medical research buildings today, the standard is 125 pounds per sq foot. NIH (National Institutes of Health) actually suggests you can’t even go below 104 and the recommendation is 125. So that became problem number one.”

The second problem is vibration, Nayler says. To deploy sensitive instrumentation, the vibration standard for medical research buildings is less than 2,000 micro-inches per second. The Prentice Building’s unique structural solution, with load bearing exterior walls, means the building has no interior support columns or interior load bearing walls.

“And the building has vibration that would be a multiple of that,” Nayler says. “The tower is actually 4 or 5 times and the base is worse than the tower. To get to the vibration criteria, you would virtually have a forest of columns.” The question would then become, “How do you get these columns down to grade and support them?” he says.

The report also indicates that the mechanical systems of the building are at the end of their useful life span and retrofitting new systems into the building’s 10 ft 6 in. floors would mean that some floors could not be used for laboratory space, Nayler says.

Landmarks Illinois, a preservation group, lists the building on its 2012 Ten Most Endangered Historic Places list. The group has prepared a reuse report that suggests that the structure be reused for residential or office purposes, but it also makes the case for some form of laboratory reuse. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is also involved in efforts to save the building, recently releasing a detailed landmark nomination. Northwestern wants to redevelop the site with an approximately 30-story research building in part because the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center is next door at 303 East Superior Street. Northwestern would link the two buildings on approximately 12 floors.

“So what we are trying to do is maximize our connectivity because we found out that that leads to really enhanced productivity,” Nayler says. “There has been research done that shows researchers would rather travel horizontally than vertically. We have done that on the Evanston Campus and connected all of our research buildings, if not by floor by floor, at least by a bridge that connects them on a common floor.”

Although the building’s unique structure makes it extremely flexible for reuse, Northwestern University’s specific goal of adding state-of-the-art research space, coupled with the Prentice Building’s location, have meant that preservationists have had a difficult path suggesting alternative uses for the building or alternative locations at which the University could build its new research space.

But a coalition of preservationists called Save Prentice is working to save the building. In addition to Landmark Illinois, Preservation Chicago, and the Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement and the American Institute of Architects have stated their support. The coalition has taken its cause to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, sending a letter signed by 60 architects in support of preserving the structure. The matter has also been taken to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which hasn’t yet placed it on its agenda.

“Basically we are stalemated,” Fine says. “The only way to break this tie is to bring it to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. We’re not asking for an outcome. We are not demanding that it be landmarked. All we are asking is that the discussion begins. And that each party has the opportunity to bring their evidence in front of the commission to make their best argument.”


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