Learning from Prentice


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Text by Chris Enck
Images courtesy of the Save Prentice Coalition

As the last of Bertrand Goldberg’s former Prentice Hospital is reduced to rubble, a long and often politically charged chapter in Chicago preservation history draws to a close. While the iconic concrete structure with its oval windows and cantilevered clover-leaf wings perched above a Miesian base will be gone, the legacy of the “Save Prentice” campaign can serve as a model for future advocacy efforts.   

Prentice Hospital was designed by Bertrand Goldberg Associates and completed in 1975 as an early facility focusing on women’s health. Like many of Goldberg’s buildings, architecturally it broke with Chicago’s Miesian tradition of steel and glass rectilinear forms. Instead, four elegant concrete wings form a clover leaf in plan and cantilever over a low Miesian base. In addition to the striking lines of the building, Goldberg is credited with being one of the first to use computer software to design the structural aspects of the building. The software had previously been utilized in the design of dams and by the aviation industry and allowed Goldberg to maximize the potential of the structural materials. Architect and son of Bertrand Goldberg, Geoffrey Goldberg said of the structure that “you will not find the structural solution to Prentice, which is an exterior shell cantilevered off a core, anywhere else in the world and Prentice was the only one in which it was achieved.” 

The threat to Prentice existed for over a decade. Northwestern Hospital and Northwestern University are located in the crowded Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago where high land values have put pressure on smaller buildings in favor of higher density. When a new Prentice Hospital was built nearby, the upper floors of Goldberg’s building were left empty and only the base was occupied. In 2011, when the base was also vacated, the building was transferred from the Hospital to the University who made it clear they planned to pursue demolition as soon as possible to clear the site for the eventual construction of a medical research facility. Because the building had no landmark protection and was built after the 1940 cutoff of the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, there was no local protection or applicable demolition delay.
Responding to the threat of demolition, a coalition of local preservation groups banded together to form the “Save Prentice” campaign. The Chicago region is fortunate to have numerous architecture and preservation groups and for this important issue, Docomomo US/Chicago-Midwest teamed up with Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and AIA Chicago to combine efforts toward the common goal of saving the building. Frequently groups partner for events and lectures, but when it comes to advocacy, often we choose separate targets to spread our influence. While partnering with other preservation groups is not a new idea locally (several of the same groups successfully worked together in 2003 to raise funds to purchase Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House at auction), the scale of this effort, the length of the campaign and the controversy that surrounded the issue made the "Save Prentice" campaign unique. 
Many an epitaph has been written following the outcome of the preservation campaign, but for the purpose of this article, Docomomo US/Chicago-Midwest reflects on the many events, efforts and ideas that were applied to the project, what lessons were learned from the campaign and how best to approach the next advocacy effort.
Because of the length of the high profile campaign and the number of people and groups involved, preservationists tried every trick in the book and experimented with some new ideas. This article highlights (in no particular order) some of the techniques and ideas that were utilized throughout the campaign that can perhaps be used as an example for the next advocacy battle:
Meetings – Like many advocacy campaigns, meetings were an important part of the "Save Prentice" campaign. From initial meetings between the preservation groups that would eventually become the Save Prentice Coalition to neighborhood meetings that attempted to garner support from those who live in the residential buildings near (and with views of) the iconic building, meetings were a way to both spread the message of preservation and ideas for reuse as well as show that there was interest in this issue. The campaign culminated at meetings of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks where hundreds of attendees spoke passionately and eloquently in favor of preservation and vastly outnumbered a few individuals who spoke in favor of demolition. The politically charged content of these meetings and associated votes by the Commission ultimately sealed the fate of the building.
Lecture Series – The coalition developed the series of lectures and events known as “Chicago Modern: More than Mies” to raise awareness of modern buildings and places by architects who are sometimes overshadowed by the worldwide attention of Mies van der Rohe. Prentice Hospital and the other iconic structures designed by Bertrand Goldberg along with many other architects, relatively unknown suburban marvels and cultural icons, were the subject of a series of well-attended events that included lectures, modern films, cocktail events and panel discussions.
Letter Writing – In addition to a letter writing campaign, the coalition drafted a letter to the mayor of Chicago urging him to support landmark designation of the iconic building as an asset to the architectural quality of the city, which is a major source or tourism. As AIA Chicago noted, “it helped to show that the building has significance far beyond the borders of the city and encouraged the mayor to maintain the global reputation as a nurturer of bold and innovative architecture." The letter was signed by over 80 architects from around the world including at least 6 Pritzker prize winners.  
Rallies – Rallies were held in front of the building to gain public attention, particularly within the neighborhood and the adjacent Northwestern Hospital and Northwestern University campuses.  Since Prentice was built specifically as a women’s hospital, many of those wearing “Save Prentice” t-shirts had “I was born at ‘Old’ Prentice” on the back.  At the rallies were speeches and memorable banners with slogans such as “Great Cities Don’t Destroy Great Buildings” and “Landmark Not Landfill.”
Tours – While coalition members are no strangers to the idea of a tour, the coalition organized a bus tour with Chicago Architecture Foundation called “Architecture in the Round” to visit several Goldberg buildings in Chicago as part of the Docomomo US National Tour Day. The tour highlighted Prentice as well as Marina City, River City and the recently renovated Hilliard Homes
Watch Lists – Generally the preservation organizations in Chicago are careful not to overlap buildings on their watch lists in order to spread influence to as many endangered sites as possible. In the case of Prentice, the importance of the building led to inclusion on the Landmarks Illinois “10 Most Endangered Historic Places” list, Preservation Chicago’s “Chicago’s 7 Most Threatened” list and it was featured by Docomomo US and the National Trust as nationally important advocacy issues.
Exhibitions – The campaign ran concurrently with an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago titled “Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention.” The exhibition ran for several months and showcased the architecture, life and influence of Bertrand Goldberg and his associates for thousands of visitors.
Branding and Merchandising – In order to unify the brand of the Save Prentice campaign, a unified logo was developed, which highlighted the bold architectural forms of the building and was easily reproduced on posters, websites and on merchandise that was sold or given out at many events. Items included t-shirts, buttons and other items to help spread the message.
Reuse Studies – As part of the campaign, a local architecture firm generously donated time to develop multiple in-depth reuse studies that sought to show the owner, politicians and the public that demolition was not the only option. The reuse studies directly addressed concerns with the current building expressed by the owner as well as alternative uses than those mentioned by the owner. In addition to the solicited reuse study options, several other proposals were developed by members of the architectural community. Some of these options were quite bold and included maintaining all or a portion of the building to achieve greater density on the site while preserving the essence of Goldberg’s design. As Scott Rappe, President of AIA Chicago 2014 Board of Directors describes “As active participants in the real estate development industry, architects risk alienating current and potential clients by weighing in on a contentious issue like Prentice. None the less, we did.  AIA Chicago’s leadership on the issue emboldened individual architects to speak out, offer alternative uses and propose forward-thinking designs that addressed the university’s needs while preserving Prentice.” 
Talking points – AIA Chicago described how the “coalition’s broad-based support for the iconic building pushed the dialog beyond the stock property-rights-versus-preservation argument. It raised legitimate questions about cultural responsibility, political connections, non-profit tax status and finances that those advocating for demolition would have preferred not to address.” In the Preservation Leadership forum "What makes Modernism so different?" Chris Morris of the National Trust described the special challenges in gaining support for buildings from the recent past: “Most people don’t know or care about architects, styles, or building materials, but they may have a deep connection to a place for other, less tangible reasons. It is important to understand, respect, and celebrate those connections.” With strong opinions surrounding Prentice, coalition members were careful in how they discussed the building, history and potential reuse options.
Fundraising – Donations to the Save Prentice Campaign came in a variety of forms from general contributions to the effort, sponsorship of specific events, use of space, and donation of professional services. Because of the length and breadth of the campaign, the combined financial and in-kind contributions topped were substantial.
Social Events – In order to gain a larger following beyond the usual lecture/ tour attendees, and particularly to encourage a younger following for this and other preservation events, the coalition organized social events that focused on Prentice in a fun and less academic atmosphere.  A “Bowling for Prentice” event was held at the bowling alley in the Bertrand Goldberg-designed Marina City as well as a Mad Men Season 5 premier viewing party held at a midcentury modern location space.
Website – The “Chicago Modern: More Than Mies” website was launched in conjunction with the lecture and event series. In addition to the facebook page, the website served as a location to post updates, events, and gain attention for the issue. The website also includes original content by a number of contributors on a wide range of familiar modern topics and hidden gems. The website will soon be overhauled to move the content beyond the Prentice battle into new topics related to modern architecture in the Chicago region and beyond.
Media Coverage – Coalition members did an excellent job at keeping the issue in the public spotlight through frequent coverage in local, national and international media. The broad array of connections afforded by the many involved groups helped spread the word.  Hundreds of articles have appeared in print publications, newspapers, online and many have been re-posted numerous times. A PR firm was hired by the coalition to advise on the effort and helped to direct the efforts and sustain media coverage, which ultimately helped to get the building onto the agenda for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks agenda.
Advertising – In an effort to broaden public interest in the issue, advertising space on Chicago Transit Authority “L” trains was purchased for several months where the nearly three quarters of a million daily riders would be exposed to the “Save Prentice” message.
Unconventional Approach – Unrelated to the Prentice coalition, an airplane with a pro-Prentice banner addressing the Northwestern University president buzzed the graduation ceremony in Evanston. While not directly related to the campaign, the stunt showed the passion that preservationists felt toward the issue.
Social Media – Coalition members set up the Save Prentice facebook page to attract attention to the cause and create interest in the topic. The page has been followed by thousands of people and continues to get visitors and comments. Content included updates, photos of events, links to articles, a calendar of events and public comments. Live updates were posted on facebook and twitter with the #Prentice during important meetings for individuals who were interested but couldn’t make it to the meetings, they could follow along from their home or office and express their own comments.
Documentation – When it was clear that the battle was over and the building would be destroyed, coalition members got approval to access before the demolition crews arrived in order to document the building with photographs as well as by a documentary film crew who created a short film about the advocacy efforts and hope to eventually create a longer film about the history of the building.
Recognition – At the end of the campaign, a recognition event was held at the historic former Maxim’s restaurant in the basement of the Goldberg-designed Astor Tower to thank the many volunteers who donated time, money and expertise to make the campaign possible.
Join us for a post-script at the AIA Convention in Chicago - Following these efforts, Docomomo US and Docomomo Chicago-Midwest will be participating in the exhibition hall at the 2014 National AIA convention in Chicago, Illinois, June 26-28. The theme of the exhibit is centered on the recent loss of Prentice, and will feature Nathan Eddy’s film entitled, “The Absent Column,” which will be available to watch during the entire event. In hopes that the fate of Prentice will serve as a rally cry for future preservation efforts, the exhibit will focus on the current threats to modern architecture and will feature original photos of modern architecture donated by members and individuals interested in the mission of Docomomo US. Photos will be raffled off at the conclusion of the convention. Many thanks to Harboe Architects, PC who have generously sponsored the exhibit. 
If you are interested in donating an image for the AIA exhibition or for more information on getting involved, email info@docomomo-us.org.

Chris Enck is a project engineer at Klein and Hoffman in Chicago and an active member of Docomomo US Chicago-Midwest chapter.