To Save or Not to Save

(I’m sure the blogosphere has been full in recent days with amazed comment about the unlikely fact that two of the most unpopular people in the United States are going to receive their party’s nomination for president. But we can’t think about the implications of this all the time, can we?) 

To Save or Not to Save 

By Patrick F. Cannon

Several years ago, I wrote a book about Louis Sullivan and his architecture. While doing the research, I discovered that fewer than 40 of the approximately 200 buildings that he built alone and with his partner, Dankmar Adler, then survived. Indeed, in 1972 I was working in the Loop and watched the 1893 Chicago Stock Exchange being demolished (fragments may be seen at the Art Institute and other places). I was in the Army in 1962 when another of his masterpieces, the Schiller Building of 1891 came down, so was spared the agony of watching its destruction and replacement by a parking garage.

Slowly, over the years, we’ve managed to do a little better. Chicago now has a stronger landmark ordinance, even though it’s not foolproof. Daniel Burnham and Charles Atwood’s 1895 Reliance Building was restored and repurposed as the Burnham Hotel; Louis Sullivan’s Schlesinger & Meyer Department Store (later Carson, Pirie Scott) was restored and is now the multi-purpose Sullivan Center; and Chicago School landmarks such as the Rookery, the Marquette, the Monadnock, the Old Colony, and Chicago Buildings still have their place in a resurgent Loop.

Two buildings just as familiar to generations of Chicagoans have been sitting vacant and deteriorating for years: the former Main U.S. Post Office and original Cook County Hospital. Both have been replaced by modern facilities. And both, it seems to me, illustrate the difference between saving a building for historical as opposed to architectural merit. Personal taste enters into this, of course, but neither can claim unique architectural distinction.

Another criterion is this: do visiting architects, architectural historians or architectural buffs have these buildings on their must see list? I doubt it. (It would be interesting to determine how many people visit the Chicago area primarily to look at its vast array of significant buildings.)

Built between 1913 and 1916, and designed by Richard Schmidt and Paul Gerhardt, County Hospital is an overblown and needlessly fussy exercise in the French Beaux-Arts tradition. If it is saved, then, it should not be for any architectural merit, but for its great historical meaning. Almost until it closed in 2002, it was the hospital of last resort for the county’s poor. At its height, it had as many as 3,000 beds, and trained generations of doctors. Its dedicated doctors and staff were featured in numerous movies and television series. Of course, it had its share of political patronage and corruption, but it may be worth saving for historical reasons alone. If a developer is willing to spend $500 million of private money to convert the building to a hotel and apartments, they should be applauded.

The old Post Office, by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, has more of a claim to architectural interest, but there are several more distinguished examples of Art Deco design, some by the same architects, including the former Field Building at LaSalle and Adams, and the Merchandise Mart. Historically, the Post Office was built as part of the Union Station complex (the station was also designed by the firm).  Its size – it was once the largest building in the world – was dictated by the vast mail order businesses of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards, at a time when most merchandise moved by rail.

Many Chicagoans have routinely driven through the building, as it straddles the Eisenhower Expressway. Its very size makes it a more dubious development risk. Like the hospital, a developer has stepped forward with a $500 million plan to convert the vast building to office space, after paying $130 million to buy it. I’m dubious that it can be done even for that amount, but if it can, it’s also worth saving.

But if either building ends up requiring a substantial public investment, then I think the public’s money could be better spent elsewhere, although I’m not at all sure that our current crop of political leaders actually understands what the phrase “the public good” actually means.


Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon


4 thoughts on “To Save or Not to Save

  1. If the massive hospital and post office had been smaller structures, they would have been torn down long ago. At some point these huge buildings become too big to fail! The Merchandise Mart eyesore can be included in that rank. Maybe Trump Tower too.

    Sorry to reference this abominable election. It is a question of the evil of two lessers.


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