Energy & Environment

Old Architecture Buildings Pit Preservation vs. Progress

A new generation of old structures is raising fresh questions about the rehabbing of architectural gems.
by | February 2012

It’s eye catching, with a noteworthy lineage and a strong -- if quirky -- design: Bauhaus meets massive, curved concrete. Although the building is empty, preservationists believe that the old Prentice Women’s Hospital building in Chicago has plenty of potential for adaptive reuse. And once preserved, it would continue to bring architectural character to the Northwestern University campus where it makes its home, as well as to greater Chicago, a city well known for its rich architectural history.

Not everyone believes in its potential. Northwestern University, which owns the building, contends that while Prentice might be architecturally distinguished, it is not suited for what the university wants on that site: a major new medical research facility.

That, in essence, frames the fight over a building designed by Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, whose iconic Marina City building complex has long since won the affection of Windy City denizens for its distinctive heating-coils-on-steroids design. Although noteworthy, neither the Marina City complex nor the Prentice Women’s Hospital has been officially granted landmark status by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks -- a designation that would virtually guarantee protection from demolition.

For advocates of preserving Prentice, that’s an immediate problem. If Northwestern can keep the building off the landmark list, Prentice likely will be torn down to make way for the new research center. The tear-down threat landed Prentice on last year’s National Trust for Historic Preservation’s (NTHP) 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. In other words, the debate over Prentice is a current example of an age-old battle in downtowns from Boston to New York to Los Angeles: preservation versus progress. Which old buildings are worth saving and which are just in the way? And, not incidentally, who gets to make that decision?

While the fight may be familiar, the overall terrain on which these battles are taking place today is shifting in two ways. First, a whole new class of architecture is now arriving on preservationists’ and architectural critics’ radar: 1950s- to 1970s-era formed-concrete structures. Some hail them for their “sinewy” and “bold” beauty; others see these forms as hulking, cold intruders into the otherwise warm cityscape, much more deserving of the wrecking ball than landmark status. “There’s no doubt that many of these buildings are not beloved to the public,” says Blair Kamin, architectural critic for the Chicago Tribune.

Second, although the National Trust and other preservation groups have been arguing the energy-saving merits of adaptive reuse since 1980, their argument is decidedly more powerful these days. In Prentice’s case, an adaptive reuse study by Northwestern University found a renovated building would not provide adequate space to meet the necessary technical standards for a research facility. In particular, the university says the existing floors do not have adequate height. A renovated building could only use every other floor, significantly reducing the building’s efficiency. But that study was countered by another report from Landmarks Illinois, a statewide nonprofit preservation organization, which argues that Prentice could accommodate either 800 researchers, 112 apartments or offices for 2,000 workers.

Northwestern University spokesman Alan Cubbage says the university knew it would be in for a fight because of Prentice’s Goldberg lineage. But he insists that the school thoroughly studied the possibility of adaptive reuse, and Prentice just doesn’t fit the bill. Besides the floor-height problem, the combination of land constraints and the fact that Northwestern wants a research building considerably larger than Prentice would allow makes adaptive reuse a nonstarter for the school, Cubbage says. Still, Landmarks counters that saving the building as a residence or office building would not only cost significantly less than building a new one, it would have the ancillary benefit of keeping 23,000-plus tons of debris out of landfills.

For preservation groups like Landmarks, taking a second look at a second life for a building like Prentice has broader implications than whether the numbers work for cost-efficient adaptive reuse. It says something about the culture of the city in which such buildings sit, as well as the sustainability ethic of the building’s owner. “The city and the university both preach sustainability,” says Lisa DiChiera, Landmarks’ director of advocacy. “What’s more sustainable than using this existing building?”

In the middle of the fight, of course, is the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Last summer it tabled the Prentice bid for landmark status in return for a promise from Northwestern that the university would hold off on demolition, giving both sides more time to muster their arguments.

All big city landmark commissions now face the same dilemma: What to do with 40-something-year-old buildings that land in a special class of uncertainty. Are they historic or not? Do they have aesthetic value? Will we one day be sorry if we tear them all down? “Timing is one of the perpetual problems with this whole group of buildings from the 1970s,” says Chris Morris, who heads up the NTHP’s Midwest Office in Chicago. Because a building has to be at least 50 years old to make it into the National Register of Historic Places, buildings pushing their mid-40s don’t have that historic cache. “It’s that weird time for buildings,” says Morris. “Are they historic or are they just showing their age?”

Every architectural era seems to go through trial-by-demolition before it is accepted as an important evolution of the species. “You saw this with Sullivan’s buildings,” says Morris, noting that a number of the now beloved, groundbreaking skyscrapers designed by renowned Chicago architect Louis Sullivan were lost before the city woke up to their value. “We see this happening over and over again: critical points where there just was not enough appreciation of a certain architect or style, and I think that’s where we are now with the Prentice building.”

But with this class of buildings, “Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder,” says Tom Murphy, who was mayor of Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2006. Murphy has been on both sides of the preservation argument, and is familiar with the debate in Chicago. He supported the demolition of a 1970s Pittsburgh icon. “You look at a structure like Three Rivers Stadium, and you really have to wonder what the architects were smoking and drinking.” But even that massive concrete colossus -- which came down in 2001 and was home to the Steelers football team and Pirates baseball team -- had its defenders.

As for who gets to decide whether a building is worth saving, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has a strong opinion. In his recent paean to urban high-rise architecture, The Triumph of the City, he warns of the “perils of preservation.” In the book, Glaeser argues that local landmark commissions wield way too much power, listing -- among other crimes -- landmark commissions’ unrelenting efforts to stifle the sort of vertical growth that Glaeser says is so important to long-range urban economic viability.

But that’s an argument that long-time preservation advocates, like Roberta Brandes Gratz, swat away with something bordering on contempt. Gratz, a former member of the New York City Landmarks Commission and author of The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, rattles off example after example of instances where politically connected and powerful developers steamrolled the commission. “Don’t tell me that developers in New York City can’t get what they want,” she says. “The landmarks commission never has too much power when they’re dealing with powerful developers.”

Preservationists like Gratz would argue that anyone who has spent any time following preservation battles quickly learns that who wins and who loses usually boils down to the usual suspects: politics and money. They contend that developers who have pull in city hall and plenty of cash on hand tend to win these fights. That’s why they rely more on grass-roots sentiment and action -- along with lawsuits. And they do have some natural allies; there are some public officials who consider preservation to be of paramount importance to the vitality of their cities.

How does it work in Chicago? “These decisions tend to be ‘aldermanic,’” says Morris, using the local slang for the fact that the alderman in whose territory these buildings sit tend to get the last word on preservation.

No matter how these battles are won or lost, there are those who believe that the fight is largely unnecessary -- that the preservation-versus-progress dichotomy is a false one. Those in that camp include internationally renowned architect and co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Stefanos Polyzoides. “Instead of asking, ‘Why can’t we tear down three historic buildings to put up a skyscraper?’” he says, “we should be asking where we can add units and do infill. That should be part of the long-range plan for the city.”

Polyzoides, who is a partner in the Pasadena, Calif.-based architecture firm of Moule & Polyzoides, grants that in some older and fairly compact cities like Boston, it’s not so simple. But in most cities there is ample opportunity to build new, compatible infill without tearing down old and perfectly serviceable buildings of whatever pedigree. “I have no sense that we are short of space or opportunity,” says Polyzoides. “What we’re short on is the patience required to do this thoughtfully, using infill to enlarge the value of entire districts and neighborhoods.”

Even in preservation-minded places like Pasadena, Polyzoides says, avoiding the fight hasn’t been difficult. “In the past few years, we’ve added 15,000 units of housing in Pasadena, and there is still room for another 12,000 or 15,000,” he says. “And this is in a city with very stringent preservation protections.”

Polyzoides also makes his case on sustainability grounds. If he sees any fundamental problems with “contemporary” buildings, it’s not necessarily that they’re ugly. It’s that they’re just not built to last. An architect working with a city that has a solid long-range plan for growth ought to be considering not only compatible infill, but also infill that will stand up through the ages and actually lend itself to reuse in the future.

The infill argument only gets you so far, says former Pittsburgh Mayor Murphy, who found a hunk of his city on the Trust’s 11 Most Endangered list. This happened after he proposed demolishing five downtown blocks to make room for a huge mixed-use redevelopment project. “While I always thought preservation should be the first option,” Murphy says, buildings like Prentice “are hard calls for city officials.”

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