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March 28, 2013

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Mashing Modernism

Posted by Frank Sanchis, Program Director, United States
World Monuments Fund
Photo © Uncommon fritillary, Wikimedia Commons

Coming directly on the heels of the demolition of Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama at Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania, the Chicago Landmarks Commission approval of Northwestern University’s plan to demolish Prentice Women’s Hospital, a striking 1975 landmark building by Bertrand Goldberg, underscores the national under-appreciation of the significance of modernism.

Arguing that the building could not be altered and updated to serve its contemporary needs, the university is now moving ahead full steam to tear it down. The argument seems specious. Prentice Hospital, an innovative, forward-looking and highly creative structure with a central structural core and cantilevered floors, was specifically designed to allow for easy alteration, even adaptive re?use. Local preservationists, understanding that, proposed a number of schemes to re-plan and rehabilitate it, none of which were of acceptable to Northwestern.

The Chicago Landmarks Commission embarrassingly designated the building and then immediately reversed their decision to allow the demolition, an unfathomable act that caused even the Cook County Judge handling the case to lose patience.

So we can add Prentice Women’s Hospital and the Cyclorama Center to the growing list of mid-century modern buildings being flattened, which includes, in the past few years, the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in New Orleans , Riverview High School in Sarasota, and the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago; not to mention Edward Durrell Stone’s 2 Columbus Circle and Richard Meier’s Bronx Developmental Center, which were both stylistically neutered by drastic alterations.

Faring better, at least for the moment, is Paul Rudolph’s 1971 Orange County Government Center, in Goshen, New York. Taxpayers of Orange County (TOC), a local grass-roots preservation group, successfully nominated the building to the 2012 World Monuments Fund Watch and waged a long and sometimes acrimonious campaign to prevent the County Executive from implementing his plan to demolish and replace the building. TOC also convinced the County Legislature to retain a team of preservation-minded architects to evaluate the rehabilitation and redesign of the building to meet the county’s programmatic needs.

Why it always takes a battle, one which is often lost, to give modernism its due is a mystery. Modernist buildings are as much a part of the continuum of architecture as any other building style. Without their preservation that thread will be broken-- both in the United States and abroad-- to our collective loss.