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Daley gets Gropius plea

Dave Roeder and Jim Peters have both appealed to Mayor Daley in print to save the Gropius buildings on the campus of Michael Reese Hospital, and yesterday preservations took their plea directly to Daley’s office.

“We call upon Mayor Daley, once known as a champion for architectural landmarks, to step up to the plate and stop the demolition of Walter Gropius’s work immediately,” said Grahm Balkany of the Gropius in Chicago Coalition.

Four of eight buildings designed by the pioneer modernist architect have been demolished so far, with three more scheduled to come down.  That makes Chicago “the first city government in the world to willfully tear down a Gropius project,” according to the coalition.

The coalition warns that the city is on the verge of “a disaster on the order of the 1972 demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange,” a Louis Sullivan masterpiece “whose absence is still reviled as a cultural scar across the U.S.”

And by clearing the site in the midst of a housing bust – and foregoing preservation tax credits which could provide developers with many millions of dollars – the city risks  creating a new Block 37, where a landmark building was demolished to clear land that remained vacant for 20 years.

The architecture at Michael Reese Hospital, located near 31st and King Drive, is readily convertible for new housing or for offices, shopping, schools, or other uses, Balkany said.

Gropius – Chicago, New York

The destruction of Gropius buildings at Michael Reese Hospital, which Blair Kamin calls “ongoing cultural vandalism,” continues with a third demolition, the Serum Center.

“It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Serum Center,” according to the Gropius in Chicago Coalition.  “It represents one of the fullest and most extraordinary of Gropius’s contributions to Chicago.”

The coalition will rally in protest on Tuesday, November 24 at noon at Daley Plaza.

Meanwhile, Gropius and his Bauhaus colleagues are featured in an exhibition that recently opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Preckwinkle and Reese

With the demise of Chicago 2016, Ald. Toni Preckwinkle is now the only public voice demanding wholesale demolition of Walter Gropius’s Reese Modern campus, as the Chicago Journal’s latest piece indicates.

She’s taking this position despite widespread support for preservation among her constituents.  And not just architecture buffs and preservationists:  At a ward meeting on the Olympic Village in August, many residents of Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores sported “Save Michael Reese” stickers.

The Gropius in Chicago Coalition points out that Preckwinkle was momentarily stumped when asked by Chicago Talks “what her constituents would like to see on the site.”  She replied: “We’re not there yet.  I would presume we’ll have a planning process as we go forward that will involve community residents.”

Notes the coalition, that community involvement will presumably occur after demolition is complete.

Preckwinkle may also be the only person who doesn’t believe Walter Gropius designed any buildings at Reese, as she told WTTW last month.  The Gropius coalition has said she’s rebuffed repeated offers to share their research with her.

Reunion at Lathrop Homes

What started last fall as a few old friends talking about getting together has snowballed (with the help of a Facebook page) into a reunion of hundreds of former residents of Lathrop Homes this weekend – and connections with current residents who are working to preserve the historic CHA development as affordable housing.

Six hundred former residents are expected for a dinner dance tomorrow night at the White Eagle Banquet Hall in Niles (October 17, 6 to 11 p.m.). The event will raise funds for the Daniel Cotter Boys and Girls Club, where many participants belonged while growing up in the low-rise development along the Chicago River. During the day they’ll gather for tours of Lathrop Homes and nearby Schneider School and an open house at the Cotter Club, starting at noon.

“It was very positive growing up there,” said Jose Zayas, whose family lived at Lathrop from the 1950s to the ’70s, and who still lives nearby. “It still is for the families that are still there.”

“It was a neighborhood; everyone knew each other,” he recalled. “There was all the green space. And there were these anchor institutions, the boys’ club, the Crane Childcare Center, the churches….Looking back, it was the families and it was the institutions that are still there.”

The high rate of vacancies, as CHA has refused to rent out vacated units, “impacts the residents in not really having a neighborhood,” he said. Currently only about 200 units out of a total of 925 are occupied.

“It’s really sad,” said Scott Shaffer, a Humboldt Park resident who cochairs Lathrop Homes Alumini Chicago, of the vacancies. When he visits now, he says, “it really hits you…It’s something so great that they want to take away.”

While CHA’s final plans for Lathrop are still under discussion — it’s the only remaining development listed as “to be determined” in the tenth year of the agency’s ten-year plan for transformation — the current parameters would require replacing existing buildings with new construction at much greater density.

As they’ve learned of the threat to Lathrop Homes — listed as endanged by Preservation Chicago (pdf) and Landmarks Illinois – Shaffer and several other alumni have joined Zayas, who was working with residents and community groups on the Lathrop Leadership Team to preserve the buildings.

They say the current scale and setting is ideal — low-rise brick buildings in a “garden city” design, with landscaping (designed by the lengendary Jens Jensen) now mature and lush — and top-notch supportive nonprofits are on-site. (The Crane Center, which moved to Lathrop Homes in 1963, was founded in 1907 by Jane Addams, who was a colleague of Julia Lathrop at Hull House; among other distinctions, Lathrop was appointed as the first director of the federal children’s bureau when it was founded in 1912.) Preservation would allow developers to make use of generous historical rehab tax credits.

And they say that focusing on public and affordable housing is appropriate in a neighborhood where a wave of high-end condo development has cost residents thousands of units of affordable rentals. CHA’s insistence on including market-rate housing in the redevelopment makes the plan dependent on volatile market conditions, and new construction would expose residents to even longer delays.

CHA’s request for qualifications should be recast so that it is open to nonprofit developers of affordable housing, they say.

“These buildings are good, solid, beautiful, historic buildings,” said reunion organizer Betty Howard. “There’s a dire need for low-income housing, and this area has been set aside for that purpose since the 1930s.”

(It was following protests organized by Howard and some friends in the mid-60s that the Lathrop Homes Boys Club began admitting girls. “We wanted access and we got it,” she said.)

Zayas says he agrees with residents’ demands (see Newstips 10-22-08) that vacant units be occupied. “It’s a moral issue, having 700 units shut when you have people who desperately need that housing right now,” he said.

Current residents will be among those speaking at tomorrow night’s event; the hope is to encourage more alumni to get involved in preservation efforts, organizers say.

Win or lose, Reese campus threatened

Demolition of the Michael Reese campus, including buildings designed by architect Walter Gropius, could commence immediately, regardless of whether Chicago wins its bid for the Olympics on Friday, said James Peters of Landmarks Illinois.

The group presented a plan to reuse several of the Gropius buildings in the redevelopment of the campus, but neither the city nor Chicago 2016 has given any response, he said.

The Gropius in Chicago Coalition cited a report in The Architect’s Newspaper quoting Chicago 2016’s Cassandra Francis, director of the Olympic Village, saying, “We are actually not considering alternative plans because we have received very positive feedback for our plans from the [International] Olympic committee.  If we do get the games, there is no room for preservation.”

Peters said he’s seen no indication that there has been any evaluation of the feasibility of reusing the historic buildings.  Such an evaluation would not take much time, he said, and there are a number of developers in Chicago “who have experience at reuse and know how to make money at it.”  He points to the award-winning adaptive redevelopment of the South Water Market near UIC.

Preserving the Gropius buildings would enable developers to seek significant historic preservation tax credits, he said.

But planners “seem to have come into this with a cleared-site mentality,” he said.

The Gropius coalition reports that the campus’s laundry building has already been severely damaged.

Peters said there is a great deal of demolition equipment now on the campus.  Demolition contracts were awarded in July.

Architectural Legacy Threatened

(Continued from Part 1: Parks)

There are parks, schools, and community institutions that could be impacted if the Olympic Village is built on the site of Michael Reese Hospital.

At 3113 S. Rhodes, Pershing East Elementary, a small Bauhaus-style gem, sits exactly where the Chicago 2016 bid book shows a “transport mall” the Village. Though the school does not appear in the bid book’s renderings, Chicago 2016 has reportedly said it will not be torn down. But questions from Newstips about whether it would be closed to accommodate construction were not answered.

On the same block, Lake Meadows Park will be paved for a parking lot, with subsequent restoration reportedly promised. A large wooded section of Burnham Park east of the village will be leveled to provide facilities for athletes, and the bid book shows a “security command and fire brigade” in the historic Olivet Baptist Church. A city spokesperson referred questions to Chicago 2016, which did not respond.

But the urgent concern of local preservationists is the imminent demolition of the hospital campus, much of it designed after World War II under the guidance of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, a seminal modernist architect. The campus includes the only buildings in Chicago designed by Gropius and is one of a small number of extensive Gropius projects in the world.

IIT architecture student Grahm Balkany was researching Gropius’s role when the city began moving to purchase the campus for an Olympic Village. So far he’s documented Gropius’s direct involvement in eight Reese buildings; he believes there are probably more. As the “guiding hand” to the hospital’s campus master plan, Gropius had a wide influence on its post-war expansion.

At the time Balkany went public with his preliminary findings, Chicago 2016 said no decisions had been made about what buildings to demolish. Since then, however, they’ve taken a hard line, citing an earlier agreement to preserve the original 1907 hospital building as if that precludes further consideration.

“We’re trying to show the world that we’re a world-class city, and the first thing we’re going to do is tear down a huge collection of buildings by arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century,” said Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago. “It’s kind of insane.”

Many of the most significant buildings are “perfectly adaptable,” he argues. Balkany points out that the Olympic Village will require a laundry, a clinic, and a main dining hall, all of which exist or could be served by Gropius buildings, which include large and small structures.

Instead, Chicago 2016 is planning 21 identical 12-story buildings — reminiscent to some of Robert Taylor Homes, except they’re placed on huge parking pedestals, like the new developments plaguing the Near North Side.

Read the rest of this entry »

Trees cleared on Reese campus

[UPDATED AND CORRECTED]   The Gropius in Chicago Coalition has heartbreaking before-and-after photos of the landscaping and parks  that have been clearcut on the Michael Reese campus. “Hundreds of trees have been killed, and all shrubbery, flowers, and ground cover has been scraped from the site,” the coalition reports.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” commented Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago.  With contractors currently abating environmental and health hazards at the site, “it’s completely unnecessary to start cutting trees down — unless it’s a scorched earth policy” to rush demolition in order to silence those who want to see the campus saved.

The Gropius coalition, Preservation Chicago, and Landmarks Illinois have been urging the city to delay demolition.  “We should hold off on any irreversible actions until the Olympic [2016 host city] decision is made,” said James Peters of Landmarks Illinois.

Earlier this year, the Reese campus was listed as endangered by Landmarks Illinois and by Preservation Chicago.

The city’s contractors are acting more or less like Mr. T did at his Lake Forest home in 1987, when he chain-sawed every tree on the lot.  That action resulted in a number of local ordinances regulating tree cutting in the north suburbs and elsewhere (though not in Chicago).

 Fine noted the vandalism and theft of public art and commemorative plaques — including plaques noting architect Walter Gropius’ contributions to the site and marking the place where the game of softball was created — and called the treatment of the campus “despicable.”  “It’s so disrespectful,” he said.

Tomorrow the Commission on Chicago Landmarks will consider the Gropius coalition’s nomination of the Michael Reese campus for city landmark status.  The hearing is at 12:45 p.m. in room 201A at City Hall.  [See below.]

In September the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council will consider the nomination of the campus to the National Register of Historic Places.  This spring the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency determined that the site is  eligible for the National Register.

Listing on the National Register would give developers access to significant federal tax subsidies if they preserved and adapted some of the buildlings, Peters said.

[8-6-09    In fact the commmission was considering whether to endorse the nomination to the National Registry of Historic Places, and voted to endorse a staff recommendation citing technical quibbles and saying the nomination should be revised and resubmitted.  Remarkably enough, given the city’s role in the imminent demolition of the campus, the landmarks commission agreed that some buildings on the campus, particularly older ones and those designed by Walter Gropius, are clearly eligible for listing on the Registry.] 

Reese demolition on hold

Preservationists got a temporary reprieve last night with a public statement that demolition of buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital campus won’t begin until after October 2.

The Gropius in Chicago Coalition and Preservation Chicago have been pushing for adaptive reuse of buildings designed by pioneer modernist architect Walter Gropius on the proposed site of the Olympic Village.

Fourth Ward Ald. Toni Preckwinkle said Chicago 2016 president Lori Healy had assured her “there are no plans to do any demolition before October 2.” That’s the day the International Olympic Committee will announce which city will host the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The announcement came at the very end of a meeting for residents of Prairie Shores, who live adjacent to the site.  Residents raised many questions about dust, noise, hazardous waste, traffic, parking, and tree removal.  They also expressed fears that Olympics-related development could cause displacement by inspiring Prairie Shores owners Draper and Kramer to raise rents.

Asked about the enforceability of a Memorandum of Understanding setting goals for affordable housing and minority hiring and contracting, Cassandra Francis of Chicago 2016 said the standards would be written into contracts for the Olympic Village.

She said two requests for proposals were being developed for the project — one including an Olympic Village if the city wins its bid, and another without the Olympics.  “If we don’t get the games, we’ll have the same process happening on the site over a longer time frame,” she said.

A commitment by AFL-CIO pension funds to provide $500 million in financing for the Olympic Village development — which is currently projected to cost over $1 billion — is contingent on Chicago winning the bid. 

While Gropius coalition activists lined the back of the meeting room in the basement of Olivet Baptist Church, questions were restricted to Prairie Shores residents. A few residents expressed support for saving architecturally significant buildings and many of them wore gold “Save MRH” stickers handed out by the coalition.

“I question the scorched earth policy,” said one resident, calling for a “more surgical approach” that saves “influential buildings,” and saying “the rush to tear [the campus] down seems preemptive.”

Preckwinkle’s comment came at the end, after University of Chicago sociologist Terry Clark — a longtime Prairie Shores resident and a former professor of the alderman — said reusing some Gropius buildings “makes esthetic sense and economic sense.”

“Don’t preclude the possibility of using some of these historic Gropius buildings,” he said, adding: “If we don’t get the Olympics, we could be looking at mud and holes for years to come.”

Contacted later, Grahm Balkany of the Gropius coalition welcomed the postponement. He said he’s urged Chicago 2016 officials to ask abatement contractors — who will be operating under demolition contracts, which are due to be awarded this week — to “be gentle with the buildings” and “tell them that there’s a possibility the buildings won’t be coming down.”

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