Time is the enemy of old buildings, breaking them down just as it breaks people down. But time can save them as well as provide the attractive patina of age.
Time — or, more accurately, the passage of time — can upend the economic assumptions on which real estate deals are built. It can allow historic preservationists to drum up popular support. And over time, architectural attitudes can shift, transforming today's "this has gotta go" eyesore into tomorrow's "this must be saved" treasure.
Issues of time connect the recent announcement that a joint venture led by John Pritzker will turn the Chicago Athletic Association into a boutique hotel and Thursday's news that more than 60 architects, including Frank Gehry, have urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to save old Prentice Women's Hospital from demolition.
At first glance, the two sagas have little in common. The Athletic Association, at 12 S. Michigan Ave. (with an annex at 71 E. Madison St.), is a Venetian Gothic gem designed in the 1890s by Henry Ives Cobb. Old Prentice, at 333 E. Superior St., is a brilliantly engineered, powerfully sculpted work of late modernism, designed in the 1970s by Bertrand Goldberg, the architect of Marina City.
If you took a poll, I'd venture, the public would be far more likely to support saving the lacy, layered facade of the Athletic Association than the exposed concrete cylinders of old Prentice. But five years ago, the Athletic Association's fate was very much in doubt.
A pair of developers, who sought to convert the building into an Omni Hotel, planned to hack off the back of the building and replace it with a 19-story high-rise. The high-rise would have towered gracelessly above the iconic Michigan Avenue "streetwall," a row of stone-sheathed buildings that form a distinctive, clifflike wall across from Grant Park.
Preservationists rightly raised a stink. Yet as much as their objections mattered, time and changing economic circumstances played a far more important role in derailing the developers' plans.
After the 2008 financial crisis and the real estate crash, the developers defaulted on a loan and lost control of the Athletic Association. Eventually, it sold to the Pritzker-led joint venture for just $13 million — less than half what the first set of developers reportedly paid.
The deep discount means there is little economic pressure on San Francisco-based John Pritzker, son of Jay Pritzker, the late Hyatt Hotels founder, to over-build the Athletic Association, as the original developers planned.
"My guess is that we're going to try to live within the confines of what's there," Pritzker said the other day. "To buy a building like that and cover up what's great about it seems kind of '60s to me."
Chances are that the Athletic Association will join the ranks of such successful architectural recycling projects as the transformation of the Reliance Building into the Hotel Burnham and the Carbide & Carbon Building's reincarnation as a Hard Rock Hotel. Chicago architects Hartshorne Plunkard will lead the renovation, which Pritzker wants to complete by spring of 2014.
Time has also affected the battle over old Prentice, which Northwestern University wants to tear down to make way for a medical research tower. The building was replaced by a new women's hospital in 2007.
In April 2011, Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, forced Northwestern to hold off on applying for a demolition permit for the building for 60 days. That allowed pressure to build on the city's landmarks commission, which scheduled a June 2011 vote on whether to grant old Prentice preliminary protected status.
But the vote was tabled at Northwestern's request, and in the 13 months since, old Prentice's fate has been in limbo — the subject of behind-closed-doors meetings involving city officials that have been anything but transparent.
Nevertheless, the delay has let preservationists make their case for this tough-to-love building — and how to give it new life. A land swap, they argue, would allow Northwestern to build its research tower on vacant nearby parcels. That would allow old Prentice to be converted to a new use. Apartments and offices are the most realistic.
In a sense, the campaign is trying to accelerate time: To move Prentice, which is just 37 years old, out of a classic danger zone — when a work of architecture is considered too old to be new and too new to be old. Let enough time pass, the theory goes, and public opinion will eventually come around, just as it did with once-despised Victorian houses.
As I've argued for more than a year, old Prentice easily meets the standards for city landmark status — most notably, that it was designed by a significant architect and that it is architecturally unique and innovative. It's long past time for Emanuel and the landmarks commission to stop dithering and start giving this striking building the protection it deserves.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun