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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Champions of the old Prentice Women's Hospital may be cloutless, but they shouldn't be

Posted By on 08.21.12 at 04:38 PM

Architecture by Goldberg
  • Architecture by Goldberg
About five years ago I got a telephone call from a well-spoken woman of a certain age and, if my ear didn't betray me, impeccable English erudition. I supposed her some sort of high official at Northwestern Memorial Hospital—or perhaps a chief surgeon's wife—and she was turning to me in an hour of need. The hospital was dreaming great dreams it did not quite have the wherewithal to execute, she confided, and having been made aware of my past contributions to Northwestern Memorial, she wondered if I might chip in with a little more.

Those contributions consisted of soiled sheets, various vials of bodily fluids, and whatever expenses were not covered by insurance. But I was still alive, so obviously Northwestern had done something right by me, and she charmed me into a solemn vow to dig deeper. However, I set terms. There's a move afoot to knock down the old Prentice Women's Hospital, I reminded the cultured English lady, and I ask you to use every last iota of your influence to prevent this travesty.

I sensed hesitation, even confusion, at the other end of the line. When I pressed my point, it became clear that my caller had never heard of the old Prentice Women's Hospital and had nothing to do with Northwestern Memorial; she was a telemarketer sitting in a call center earning a few grubby dollars. I tell the story to establish that the battle to save Prentice did not begin yesterday and to make it clear which side I'm on. Also to make the point that Northwestern Memorial is no less shameless than anyone else.

All this said, the continuing campaign to save the Bertrand Goldberg-designed building—and the ongoing media coverage of same—puzzles me. In an article in last week's Reader, Ben Joravsky referred to the "relatively cloutless crew of architecture buffs" waging the campaign; it's an accurate enough description, I suppose, but what neither Joravsky nor anybody else writing about Prentice has reflected on is how odd that is.

After all, between 1975, when the building was completed, until 2007, when Prentice moved into new quarters, a generation of powerful Chicago women had babies there, and many of those babies are themselves now grown and influential. Yet though Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, claims to have built a "broad constituency" for preserving Goldberg's cloverleaf-shaped building, that constituency doesn't include anybody who's specifically invested in the history of the hospital. Abra Prentice, principal funder of the old Prentice and the new, was approached but wasn't interested in joining the campaign—her concern is with the hospital's function, not its container.

But what about June Rosner? One of Chicago's most prominent publicists, Rosner was married to the late Dr. Marvin Rosner, who before his death in 1995 was the obstetrician of choice for just about every Lincoln Park woman I've ever known who delivered at Prentice. Fine said the name rang a bell, but "I haven't spoken to her." Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy of Landmarks Illinois, told me, "I am not familiar with her. I'll take down her name." June Rosner's sister, Lois Weisberg, is Chicago's former commissioner of cultural affairs; she hasn't been approached either.

DiChiera gave birth at the old Prentice in 2002, but most of Chicago's movers and shakers once served by that hospital are sitting out the battle. "We do know that there are a lot of prominent people in Chicago who had children there," DiChiera mused. "But it's interesting—we have not been able to get any feedback [from them] from any of our public campaigning." One of those mothers (her baby delivered by Marvin Rosner) told me by e-mail, "Have never heard anyone talk about 'loyalty' to the old bldg for any reason."

As for the neighbors, SOAR—the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents—hasn't taken sides. But president Bruce Corson tells me this is out of respect for the feelings of the "small, zealous minority" that wants to save the hospital. Most of the members, he says, hold one of two positions: "We don't care. It doesn't matter to us." Or "It's the ugliest damn thing in the neighborhood. Get rid of it or I'll throw up every morning."

This doesn't mean no support for Prentice is possible beyond the hard-core preservationists. It means public support won't come knocking on the door. The preservationists will have to go out and find it, educate it, and organize it. Is June Rosner a place to start? I called her. "I'm sure my husband would not want to see it knocked down. Nor do I," she told me. "They should save it. They're going to be so sorry in years to come that they've destroyed the architectural icons. They're not thinking or they don't care. My husband would be out there blocking them. "

POSTSCRIPT. The August 12 Tribune editorial "Let Northwestern Build: Old Prentice building should make way" was written by the editorial board's Marie Dillon, whose husband, Rich Gordon, teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. If this is a conflict, which some champions of the old Prentice seem to think, it's a small one. It's a stretch to say that Gordon's job makes Dillon in any way beholden to Northwestern; she's beholden, all right, but to the Tribune's editorial position in favor of demolition that was set out 16 months ago in an editorial Dillon didn't write.

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