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Architectural Legacy Threatened

Continued from Part 1: Parks

There are parks, schools, and community institutions that could be impacted if the Olympic Village is built on the site of Michael Reese Hospital.

At 3113 S. Rhodes, Pershing East Elementary sits exactly where the Chicago 2016 bid book shows a “transport mall” in the Village. Though the school does not appear in the bid book’s renderings, Chicago 2016 has reportedly said it will not be torn down. But questions from Newstips about whether it would be closed to accommodate construction were not answered.

On the same block, Lake Meadows Park will be paved for a parking lot, with subsequent restoration reportedly promised. A large wooded section of Burnham Park east of the village will be leveled to provide facilities for athletes, and the bid book shows a “security command and fire brigade” in the historic Olivet Baptist Church. A city spokesperson referred questions to Chicago 2016, where they elicited no response.

But the urgent concern of local preservationists is the imminent demolition of the hospital campus, much of it designed after World War II under the guidance of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, a seminal modernist architect. The campus includes the only buildings in Chicago designed by Gropius and is one of a small number of extensive Gropius projects in the world.

IIT architecture student Grahm Balkany was researching Gropius’s role when the city began moving to purchase the campus for an Olympic Village. So far he’s documented Gropius’s direct involvement in eight Reese buildings; he believes there are probably more. As the “guiding hand” to the hospital’s campus master plan, Gropius had a wide influence on its post-war expansion.

At the time Balkany went public with his preliminary findings, Chicago 2016 said no decisions had been made about what buildings to demolish. Since then, however, they’ve taken a hard line, citing an earlier agreement to preserve the original 1907 hospital building as if that precludes further consideration.

“We’re trying to show the world that we’re a world-class city, and the first thing we’re going to do is tear down a huge collection of buildings by arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century,” said Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago. “It’s kind of insane.”

Many of the most significant buildings are “perfectly adaptable,” he argues. Balkany points out that the Olympic Village will require a laundry, a clinic, and a main dining hall, all of which exist or could be served by Gropius buildings, which include large and small structures.

Instead, Chicago 2016 is planning 21 identical 12-story buildings — reminiscent to some of Robert Taylor Homes, except they’re placed on huge parking pedestals, like the new developments plaguing the Near North Side.

Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle is backing Chicago 2016’s plan, based in part on her attachment to “restoring the street grid.” But Balkany points out that before the Reese campus, the old industrial area was a maze of zig-zagging streets and dead ends. And podium parking garages tend to transform city streets into dark, lifeless canyons.

Fine argues that Village planners should “exercise a little more creativity and ingenuity, reconfigure the site, get the best architect you can and really leave a legacy.” Currently private developers are set to choose the architects and design the buildings.

“With tweaking, Chicago’s [Olympic] Village could become more village-like, incorporating buildings of a variety of scales and ages, including the best of the Reese buildings (and courtyards) in which Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius had a hand,” the Blair Kamin writes in the Tribune.

That approach would be much closer to Chicago 2016’s professed ideal of a “green” Olympics, said Chris Morris of the Midwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, speaking with the Trust’s magazine Preservation in June.

“The wholesale demolition of 29 buildings, many of which are in excellent condition and could easily be adapted for residential or retail purposes, is definitely not a sustainable or green approach,” Morris said. “The city should be looking at ways to adapt and highlight this incredible collection of modern architecture for the international audience that will be drawn to Chicago in 2016, not scraping the site clean and dumping the work of Walter Gropius in a landfill simply for the sake of expediency.”

“The Gropius buildings could benefit the Olympics, and the city, and Bronzeville,” said Balkany. For a community striving assiduously to raise its profile, the proximity of the Reese campus to Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus offers Bronzeville a potent opportunity. “Here are two of the leading architects of the 20th century, at the close of their careers, ending up on the South Side working on large projects within walking distance of each other.”

Also in walking distance are important works of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, who were both influences on Mies and Gropius. Sullivan’s Pilgrim Baptist Church (awaiting restoration) is at 33rd and Indiana, and his Eliel House is at 4122 S. Ellis. Wright’s only rowhouses, the Roloson Houses, are on the 2300 block of S. Calumet.

It would seem like a natural for a city recognized worldwide for its architectural treasures; it would cement Chicago’s place as the center of the second wave of modernism.

Gropius’s master plan for Reese is also part of Bronzeville history, the large post-war urban renewal project that responded to slum conditions. While nearby residential developments replaced a dense urban neighborhood with “towers in the park,” Gropius’s design for Reese was quite varied and (to cite his concept) “organic,” Balkany argues. Together with nearby Prairie Shores and Lake Meadows, the area stands as a success in terms of establishing a stable, integrated, working-class community, he says.

And while that project involved widespread land clearance, Balkany points out, Gropius’s plan included valuable older buildings, including the old Prairie-style Reese Main and the 1876 Olivet Church.

Although last week the staff of the Chicago Landmark Commission agreed that the Gropius buildings are probably eligible for listing on the National Registry of Historic Places (the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has already ruled that they are), the clear-cutting of the lush landscapes of the hospital campus last week indicates that Chicago 2016 and the city are gung-ho for demolition.

“From the point of view of a real estate developer, a 37-acre tract that is vacant is the most attractive proposition,” said Fine. Balkany argues that a more attractive, historic, and environmentally-sensitive design could help with sales in a tough market. And James Peters of Landmarks Illinois points out that, along with National Registry listing, preserving and reusing some of the existing buildings would give developers access to potentially huge tax credits, amounting to 20 percent of the cost of construction.

“One of the challenges is to have something that works for the market, and we’re stressing that if you do some rehabilitation along with new construction, you’ve got some significant incentives available.

“Let’s not throw out any options until we know what we’re dealing with,” he said.

The future of the Reese campus will be one of the prime topics — along with a community benefits agreement for jobs, business and affordable housing and general concerns about city finances — at Chicago 2016’s community meeting for wards 3, 4, and 20, on Tuesday, August 11 at 6 p.m. at the Chicago Urban League, 4510 S. Wabash.

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