Editorial: A Chicago revival: The Lazarus of Harrison Street
Friday, June 15, 2018
by Editorial Board
Editorial BoardEditorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.
One of Chicago’s most historic buildings — once a place of newborn babies and beating hearts and last breaths — is headed to rehab. Cook County Hospital, abandoned in 2002 and nearly demolished in 2005, is ready for redevelopment. Finally.
A three-year push by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to renovate the hulking, iconic hospital led to private financing and an agreement with developers for hotel rooms, retail space, medical offices, residential living and a museum. Led by Chicago developer John Murphy, the proposal’s first tenant will be a 210-room Hyatt House and Hyatt Place hotel. Construction is just beginning.
This will be a massive undertaking. While the building’s bones are solid and its decorative terra cotta façade is intact, the hospital has suffered from abandonment. Paint hangs off the walls in sheets. Rooms are flood-damaged. Graffiti mars windows and doors. Once avant-garde surgery amphitheaters now evoke the crumbling Colosseum in Rome.
And yet the building, stretching a full block along Harrison Street off the Eisenhower Expressway, maintains its haunting elegance. It is wounded. It needs this new heart, pumping lifeblood and oxygen through its arteries.
Preckwinkle’s asset management and real estate staffs spent hundreds of hours over three years putting the deal together. But the pending outcome is also a function of private enterprise and market forces. Commercial and residential interest in the West Side property and surrounding medical district — an extension of flourishing redevelopment west of the Jane Byrne Interchange — drove the project this far.
It has been a long time coming. In 2002, members of the Cook County Board, led by then-President John Stroger, planned to bulldoze the hospital when its $623 million replacement, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, opened. They viewed the old Cook County Hospital as too expensive and outdated to renovate. Stroger thought the hospital obscured the view from the Eisenhower Expressway of its sparkling replacement, which is located to the south.
But several freshmen board members at the time, including Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston, led a demolition resistance effort, along with local preservationists. They eventually staved off the bulldozers by one vote of the County Board in 2005.
This page urged preservation but also warned against pie-in-the-sky proposals. We recognized the hospital represents more than an architectural gem. It was known as Cook County’s Ellis Island, a respite for immigrants and the poor who had no other options for health care. It was a renowned teaching institution and source to many medical innovations, including the nation’s first blood bank and first comprehensive trauma center. And of course, it became the fictional backdrop of an award-winning TV drama, “ER,” which began airing in 1994.
Over the years, the county spent millions of dollars on consultants who offered ideas on how to re-purpose the building. Mostly it sat. Until now.
In the weeks and months to come, we’ll try not to raise our hopes too high, given the dicey history of earlier rescue efforts. The ups and downs of Cook County Hospital have been novel-worthy. This project, though, is a long-term commitment. So is our desire to see it completed.
But today, hearty congrats to the County Board members who thwarted Stroger’s demolition plan, to Preckwinkle for pushing ahead and to the private-sector stakeholders willing to take a risk on reviving the Lazarus of Harrison Street.