prentice, pan am…

It’s been an upbeat week for me with a good five days of book-related talks and meetings in Chicago, but all of that has come with two bits of genuinely frustrating preservation losses.

ImageAs reported by the Chicago Architecture Blog, among others, Northwestern has begun demolition work on Prentice Hospital, Bertrand Goldberg’s four-petaled concrete tower in Streeterville.  While the work so far has been limited to the lower, podium piece of the pavilion, this seems to mark the end of one of the most visible–and almost miraculously successful–preservation fights in the city’s recent history.  Northwestern has argued that the building, designed primarily for labor and delivery, couldn’t be economically renovated or transformed.  And while the 2012 Burnham Prize competition offered some dramatic proposals, none of them caught on with the Hospital or the development community, and after a lengthy (and confusing) administrative and legal battle, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks finally denied the building protected status in February.


Meanwhile, across the country, Delta Airlines has started preliminary demolition work on Terminal 3, the original Pan Am Worldport.  The group Save the Worldport posted yesterday that the edges of the terminal’s roof were being dismantled, and while the airline has said this is only preliminary asbestos abatement work, it looks both destructive and irreversible.  The airline offered similar rationales for the demolition–obsolescence, changing requirements, along with an undercurrent of changing stylistic preferences.  In this case, a good bit of the original’s charm had long since been obliterated by additions in the late 1960s, but even these claustrophobic extensions were historically relevant, as they showed the profound changes in airport planning and architecture wrought by the onset of the 747.

In both cases, it’s been an uphill battle to rally the public to the cause.  Postwar modernism remains a tough sell to a public whose vision of a ‘historic’ building involves bricks and turrets.  But these two examples are important case studies of what we stand to lose.  Many of the same arguments being made by the owners of postwar structures today–that these buildings are obsolete, that they’re outdated, that people think they’re ugly, , they can’t economically be renovated, and that a new building will serve the organization’s purpose better–were the same arguments being proffered in the 1950s and 1960s when countless historic commercial structures in America’s downtowns were wiped out.

There’s an understandable argument that owners shouldn’t be burdened with a legacy of buildings that are either inefficient or that genuinely stand in the way of getting business done.  I’d be the last to argue that either of these buildings rise to the level of being museum pieces–that is, structures that ought to be preserved even if there’s no function associated with them.  Both are big buildings in the middle of complexes that have onerous requirements for space in tightly delimited urban areas.  Anything that makes JFK more navigable would be worth listening to.

But with Prentice and Pan Am there seems to have been a dearth of real thought about how the structures might themselves anchor new development or construction.  The Burnham Prize visions for Prentice were, in many ways, disappointing–they were almost entirely conceptual, with no attempt to understand or explore the economics or planning involved in the rigidly laid out concrete structure.  For anyone interested in actually saving the building, this was rearranging the deck chairs after the iceberg, arguably a genuinely irresponsible capitulation to the simple, unconvincing argument that we ought to just save whatever the historians say is worth saving.  Preservation has to be a win-win-win situation to work, and if that brainpower had been applied to understanding the limits of the plan as put forward by Northwestern, and juggling ideas about reinhabitation either as a lab, as some studies tried to do, or as something new–boutique hotel in a part of town that’s a bit underserved by the new lodging boom?–just such a redevelopment might possibly have emerged.

No such competition was held for Worldport, though the possibilities of restoring a jet-age landmark to its ‘vaporous’ early glory might have created a fantastic entry space to JFK, one that could have oriented people, offered a hub for light rail or buses, or even provided space for retail and dining.  The original building proved a popular destination for plane-watching New Yorkers, complete with a white-tablecloth restaurant overlooking the tarmac.

Here’s a thought.  Let’s say that an organization that owns an historic building wants to tear it down.  There’s a debate, series of hearings, etc.  But instead of just an up or down vote, what if city landmarks commissions had a third option, one that required owners to do two things.  First, a fully sponsored ideas competition that would solicit redevelopment schemes for the property in question, with a commitment to follow through with a feasibility study for the top three schemes.  No commitment beyond that necessary, but imagine what would happen if an owner suddenly realized an opportunity for profit that also put them in the public’s good graces?  Second, if in fact the economics prove intractable, then the owner would be required to hold an international competition for whatever the new construction would be.  There’s no guarantee there of something wonderful, of course, but at least there’d be some attempt to replace quality with quality, instead of the run-of-the-mill design for which both of these sites seem to be destined…

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