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Column: An exclusive look at the reborn Cook County Hospital:
Once facing the wrecking ball, the West Side landmark is about to reemerge, beautifully remade

Friday, May 22, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Blair Kamin

The renovation and reinvention of the old Cook County Hospital is a triumph of historic preservation, one that should resonate far beyond the walls of the beloved Beaux-Arts landmark on Chicago’s Near West Side.

Not only does it give new life to an ornate, more-is-more work of architecture that Cook County leaders, unconscionably, had in their demolition crosshairs 17 years ago.

It preserves a powerful symbol of compassionate care for the poor, serendipitously coming amid a pandemic that has seen doctors, nurses and other medical professionals battle heroically against the deadly coronavirus.

The project is the anchor of a much-needed, multiphase $1 billion redevelopment that promises to enliven Chicago’s vast but dull Illinois Medical District with new housing, offices and restaurants.

The biggest part of the $140 million hospital revamp, a Hyatt Place hotel and an extended-stay Hyatt House, is scheduled to open July 1. An eight-station food hall is expected to debut Aug. 1, though the state’s coronavirus restrictions could delay that. Cook County medical offices likely will open later in August.

Long hallways with artwork for guests in the hotel inside the former Cook County Hospital.
Long hallways with artwork for guests in the hotel inside the former Cook County Hospital.(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

It is always risky to review a building before it is 100% complete. But after a preview Wednesday, I came away impressed with both the meticulous restoration of the old hospital’s sumptuous classical exterior and the creative redesign of its once-crumbling interior, where mold, moss, ferns and trees once grew and squatters covered the walls with graffiti.

For those of us who questioned the wisdom of tearing down the building at 1835 W. Harrison St., without a vigorous public debate, as former Tribune reporter Patrick T. Reardon and I did in 2003, the project represents a remarkable turn of events.

In 2003 when then-Cook County Board President John Stroger aimed to demolish the old hospital after a new one named for him opened to the south, it seemed like Chicago would repeat the civic barbarity it committed in the early 1970s when it allowed the destruction of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building.

There was every reason to fight Stroger’s plan, and not only because the old hospital had embedded itself in the public consciousness as the inspiration for the medical TV drama “ER” or because its illustrious medical history included the world’s first blood bank.

Completed in 1916, largely to the design of Cook County architect Paul Gerhardt, the old hospital stood out from the monolithic modernism of the medical buildings around it.

The iconic columns on the Harrison Street facade of the former Cook County Hospital.
The iconic columns on the Harrison Street facade of the former Cook County Hospital. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Its proud but dilapidated Harrison Street facade, which featured pairs of three-story Ionic columns as well as faces of lions and cherubs, powerfully communicated the idea that the building represented a source of strength and succor to the poor and sick.

Such was the hospital’s devotion to caring for indigent African Americans and Hispanics who had migrated to Chicago that it was called Chicago’s “Ellis Island,” even though it was not, strictly speaking, an immigration portal.


Exterior detail of the former Cook County Hospital.
Exterior detail of the former Cook County Hospital.(Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

This spirit of inclusion was exemplified by the words affixed to a monument to the French medical researcher Louis Pasteur in a park across Harrison Street. “One doesn’t ask of one who suffers: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says, you suffer, this is enough for me, you belong to me and I shall help you.”

We should be thankful that Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin and the advocacy group Landmarks Illinois mobilized a successful charge against Stroger’s misguided plan and that County Board President Toni Preckwinkle backed the renovation of this treasure, which is both an official Chicago landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The renovation was worth every cent of the $27 million in historic preservation tax breaks the developers will receive. Credit for the project goes to the Civic Health Development Group, which is led by Murphy Development Group and includes Walsh Investors, MB Real Estate, the Plenary Group and Granite Cos.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, led by designer partner Brian Lee and managing partner Adam Semel, headed the architectural team. The Chicago firm KOO designed the hotel’s interiors.

Their combined work has the building’s exterior, made of granite, brick, limestone and terra cotta, looking sharper and cleaner than it has in decades.

The exterior of the former Cook County Hospital on May 20, 2020.
The exterior of the former Cook County Hospital on May 20, 2020. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

More than 4,500 pieces of terra cotta have been replaced — roughly 2,800 more than anticipated. (The developers had enough in their contingency fund to pay for the extras.) Naturalistic details, including sculpted versions of grapes, emerge as if we’ve never seen them before. Metal window frames match the profile of the wood originals.

The replacements have been handled with such skill that there is little evidence of patchwork.

A clunky blue and white entrance canopy is gone, replaced by a sliver-thin canopy of steel and glass that disappears, with appropriate modesty, as you look as the building head-on.

As strong as the restored exterior along Harrison is, the real revelations come inside where, for the first time in years, we can see firsthand that the building’s beauty is more than skin deep.

The main lobby, once chopped into a single-story entrance, has been restored to its original two-story height, complete with elegant classical details and a stylish staircase of gray Tennessee marble. Ultrawide, superlong corridors, no longer dark and dreary, retain their dimensions and their handsome terrazzo tile floors.

The renovated lobby of the former Cook County Hospital is seen May 20, 2020.
The renovated lobby of the former Cook County Hospital is seen May 20, 2020. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

In these and other interior spaces, KOO’s Jackie Koo has successfully introduced playful contemporary light fixtures, wall coverings and artwork to send the message that hotel guests are entering a freshened piece of history, not a stodgy museum or a sterile medical facility.

No one is going to mistake this for an ordinary chain hotel.


New lighting inside the lobby of the former Cook County Hospital.
New lighting inside the lobby of the former Cook County Hospital.(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

The interior is brightened — literally — by the way Skidmore, Owings & Merrill took advantage of the old hospital’s remarkably thin footprint. It measures 550 feet long by just 80 feet wide, the result of four original wings being removed years ago. With walls that blocked windows removed, the building no longer seems cavernous.

Koo and the Skidmore team have carefully threaded 210 hotel rooms into the building’s forest of structural columns. The rooms, some of which have quirky layouts, are outfitted with smart contemporary decor and easy-to-clean surfaces, a plus for a hotel that will open during a pandemic. Thick insulation blocks out the rush of vehicles barreling down the nearby Eisenhower Expressway.

My favorite rooms, on the eighth floor, are former skylit operating rooms with high, slanted ceilings and bands of windows that overlook the United Center to the north and the downtown skyline to the east. Still to be renovated, but teeming with architectural possibility, are the even more impressive tiered operating theaters at the ends of the same floor. A use for them has yet to be determined.

The operation theater, neglected for many years, still awaits renovation at the former Cook County Hospital.
The operation theater, neglected for many years, still awaits renovation at the former Cook County Hospital.(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

To be sure not everything is perfect. Metal panels on the building’s rear, which cover the “scars” that were created when the original wings were removed, respect the proportions and facade organization of the original design, but they’re no prize winners.

In the long run, the panels may be concealed by residential buildings, geared to medical workers, the developers plan to construct behind the old hospital. They also plan high-rises on the flanks of the park across Harrison Street, which will leave the center of the park open, preserving the view of the old hospital’s main facade.

The rear exterior of the former Cook County Hospital.
The rear exterior of the former Cook County Hospital.(Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The care that went into the project reflects the development team’s awareness that they were working on a civic treasure, one that had personal meaning for John T. Murphy, who heads Murphy Development Group.

He’s naming the food hall for his great-uncle, the renowned Chicago surgeon John B. Murphy, who is credited with numerous medical innovations and treated Theodore Roosevelt after the former president was shot by a would-be assassin in 1912. In addition, Murphy’s father and grandfather both did their residencies at the old hospital.

Ultimately, however, the meaning of this project is civic as well as personal. Its rebirth strikes a chord on many levels: architectural, historical, medical, and cultural. Chicago’s great buildings, it reminds us, are found in the neighborhoods, not just in its downtown. And this is a great one — for the beauty of its design, the humane values it communicates and the stirring stories it still tells.

Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @BlairKamin

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