Chicago or Bust!


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By Jessica Smith

This past June, the Docomomo US office traveled to Chicago for the 2014 AIA National Convention. Our time there yielded numerous conversations about the impact of the loss of Prentice Women’s Hospital, what's worth saving today, and the role that Docomomo US is playing in current efforts to save significant modern architecture. We rounded out our time with a heartbreaking visit to the demolition site of Prentice, and toured Chicago's finest architecture that, of course, included two Mies masterpieces, Crown Hall and Farnsworth House.  




Photo (above): Liz Waytkus and Jessica Smith on the convention floor

Our exhibit’s primary focus was to bring attention to the events leading up to the demolition of Prentice. Despite having to compete with a magician in the space adjacent to us, many people stopped to watch Nathan Eddy’s documentary film The Absent Column and talked to us about the impact on future preservation efforts. Quite a few of these discussions led to what is worth saving today, along with, reflecting and remembering the significant buildings that have been lost such as Penn Station and the Chicago Stock Exchange Building. We had the opportunity to meet architects (some of whom knew Bertrand Goldberg and had worked with him or were part of the fight to save Prentice), as well as designers, students, our friends from the Society of Architectural Historians.

Photo (right): Prentice Women's Hospital's state in June

On Wednesday, not wanting to waste a perfect opportunity to see Chicago up close and personal, we set out to see the sights despite the threat of rain. As heartbreaking as it was, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the Prentice site firsthand. The bleak weather fit the overall mood as we arrived to find that the demolition had almost reached the base of the building, the last remaining piece of Goldberg’s iconic structure. In talking to a foreman, we learned that demolition was only expected to take a couple of more months and, as far as he knew, there wasn’t any efforts to salvage any of the concrete. As we left, we made sure to each take a small piece of concrete as a token of what had been lost. As the day progressed, the mood greatly improved as we embarked upon a downtown walking tour offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation that provided us with views of great buildings designed by Daniel Burnam, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Llyod Wright. However, the highlight of the day took place after the tour when we received a private tour of Alder and Sullivan's Auditorium Theater, opened in 1889 and now owned by Roosevelt University.

Other highlights of the week included visiting Mies Van der Rohe's Crown Hall and the campus of IIT where we stayed for an evening of dancing and fun. Although the building is beautiful at any time of the day, the simple elegance of the design was illuminated even more as the sun set and was accentuated by the rising fog. Then on Sunday, before heading back to New York, we made the pilgramage to Mies' other masterpiece, the Farnsworth House. It was the perfect day to tour the grounds and learn about the history of the house as well as the efforts that went into restoring it after severe flooding caused extensive damage on multiple occasions. 

Photo (right): Crown Hall at dusk

The six days we spent in Chicago flew by, and our time would not have been such a success without the generous support of Docomomo US Director Gunny Harboe, Docomomo US Vice President Robert Meckfessel, Nathan Eddy, and Matthew Carbone, along with the tireless assistence of Chicago architects Peter Schlossman and Wes. It is because of the continous support of members and individuals that the mission of Docomomo US is able to continue.  

1. The Auditorium. "Auditorium History."