“Often called the Ellis Island of Chicago, the publicly owned Cook County Hospital—constructed between 1912-1914—served as a medical facility where no one would be turned away. Dramatized by the long-running medical drama ER, Cook County’s persistent presence on the horizon (easily seen from the Eisenhower Expressway coming into the city) made the hospital a visual landmark for residents and visitors alike. For over twenty years, a coalition of partners and elected officials worked to protect this significant building from threatened demolition.
“While known for its classic Beaux Arts architecture, designed by architect Paul Gerhardt, the structure has a long history related to public health. Not only was Cook County Hospital the location of the first blood bank in 1937, It was also the nation’s first trauma unit in 1966, and one of the first hospitals early on to treat AIDS patients. Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois (LI) said, “even before talking about the architecture, which in itself is spellbinding, [Cook County Hospital] houses incredible social history for Chicago, and is a place more than almost anywhere else, where anyone who has family history in Chicago could find a connection.”
“In the late 1990s, Cook County announced plans to construct a new, more modern institution, and in 2001 slated Cook County Hospital for demolition. For the next twenty years, Landmarks Illinois advocated for saving the old hospital. In 2020, a 132 million-dollar renovation of the 1914 structure was completed resulting in a mixed-use preservation success story that serves the medical community and its surrounding neighborhood.
“It was like we were doing the county’s job. And as frustrating as that is, that comes with the territory in historic preservation advocacy: especially when it comes to threatened historic buildings that are publicly owned. It is so common to have to do their homework for them and take that on and say, ‘Look, we’ll do it. We’ll do the condition assessment. We’ll do the study. We’ll show you that this could be to your benefit.” This is a strategy we have continued to use with Prentice Hospital (which unfortunately we lost), with Lathrop Homes, where we had to demonstrate to the Chicago Housing Authority that this very important early public housing project absolutely should not be cleared and could be reused for today’s standards in mixed-income and public housing, and now with the state-owned Thompson Center.
“Partners are also an important part of the process. It is so important for historic preservation organizations or advocates engaging in a historic preservation campaign to build a coalition, and to find not only design experts and construction firms who can work with you to prove out the viability of an older building, but you also have to make friends with developers too. Developers are usually who we need to take these buildings on.
“Of course, this cannot be stated more times, partnership is key. It took a coalition. I never would claim Landmarks Illinois was alone in this fight. Preservation Chicago and the National Trust for Historic Preservation worked on this with us, not to mention key Cook County commissioners, who believed in this building from the very beginning. People like, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, and former Commissioner Mike Quigley, who’s now Congressman Quigley.” (Priya Chhaya, Savingplaces.org, 11/22/20)