Can shuttered Cook County Hospital be resuscitated as rehabbed housing?

Old hospital buildings, like the long-term benefits baby boomers once expected from Medicare, seem to be on their way to extinction.

In recent years, dozens of private hospitals from coast to coast have fallen to the wrecking ball to make way for expressways, office complexes, shopping centers and new housing developments.

The vintage Cook County Hospital, at 1835 W. Harrison in the heart of the Near West Side’s Medical District, is the latest candidate for demolition. Designed by famed architect Richard Schmidt and erected over a period of years starting in 1913, the now shuttered two-block-long hospital features impressive fluted columns and a Beaux Art-style brick, granite and terra cotta façade festooned with classic detail.

“The old hospital is a wedding cake of a building that will never be duplicated. It is an eight-story fortress with walls 24 inches thick at the base. It could have lasted 1,000 years,” noted long-time Near West Side resident and preservationist William Lavicka, president of Historic Boulevard Services.

Although Cook County Hospital lacks official historic landmark status, Lavicka points out that the building is revered by the medical community and is considered a monument to the more than two million people born there, including the late Mayor Harold Washington.

“Cook County Hospital is important to preserve because it represents part of the city’s poor and immigrant population’s past,” Lavicka said. “Historically, Chicago had two designated places of diversity – this hospital and Maxwell Street. Now it is likely that both destinations will become part of ‘Lost Chicago.'”

“In any other American city, it would be a civic treasure,” noted Dr. Cory Franklin, of the new John H. Stroger Hospital. “In Europe, where buildings like Cook County Hospital are venerated, it would be steam cleaned, made pristine and renovated.”

Regardless, Cook County Board President John Stroger and several other commissioners are adamant in their plan to demolish the 90-year-old building and neutralize its asbestos at an estimated cost to the taxpayers of $20 million to $30 million to clear the way for another use – maybe a park or a parking garage.

Preservationists suggest Cook County Hospital could be converted to much needed medical offices, assisted-care housing, other health-related facilities or market-rate condominiums priced at up to $250 per square foot. The conversion cost is estimated at $70 million to $80 million. However, the renovation has the potential to generate tens of thousands of dollars in property tax revenue.

The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois has proposed that Cook County turn the building over to private developers for the nominal fee of $1 a year. Utilizing a mix of city and federal preservation subsidies and tax credits plus private investment, developers could convert the hospital into a mix of 320 loft residential units, a health and wellness facility and a 150-car parking garage.

Historic renovation tax credits could amount to $20 million, and the county would save up to $30 million in demolition costs. This is a strong argument for preservation.

Not all of Chicago’s historic hospitals have met with the wrecking ball. In 1997, a guardian angel swooped down to preserve the historic St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Hospital, built after the turn of the century overlooking a in the University Village neighborhood on the Near West Side.

St. Cabrini Hospital was reborn as loft condominiums in the Columbus on the Park development because of the creativity and perseverance of veteran developers Harold and Gerry Lichterman, who are well known for both their preservation work and new residential developments.

St. Cabrini Hospital was contending with problems affecting practically every medical facility nationwide. Dwindling revenues due to tighter federal reimbursements for Medicare patients have hurt budgets. In addition, technological developments and innovations in the medical industry in recent years greatly reduced the need for in-patient care and put more emphasis on outpatient treatment.

Several of the city’s vintage hospital buildings, including Augustana Hospital in Lincoln Park and Henrotin Hospital on the Near North Side, were shuttered in recent years and later, razed to make way for luxury housing developments.
Columbus Hospital, overlooking Lincoln Park, at 2520 N. Lakeview, is another demolition candidate. American Invsco plans to transform the three-acre site into The Lakeview, a new residential community of up to 220 ultra-luxury highrise condominiums and city mansions.

Real estate columnist and media consultant Don DeBat has written about Chicago-area housing and mortgage markets since 1968. He is president of Don DeBat and Associates, www.dondebat.net.

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