Cook County Hospital: 1825 W. Harrison Street – New life for a grand old dame

The prognosis looks good for the grand old dame of Harrison Street. Oncook-county-hospital March 2, 2010, the Construction Committee of the Cook County Board voted 6-0 to approve the adaptive reuse of the historic Cook County Hospital Building.

This action most likely ends a decade-long battle to preserve the former hospital building. The full county board affirmed the recommendation in a 17-0 vote in a session that immediately followed the committee meeting.

Preservation Chicago kicked off its preservation effort at an April 2003 press conference, which featured author Studs Terkel.

A massive grass roots public awareness and advocacy campaign began that spring and continued through 2004, culminating in the collection of over 13,000 petition signatures in favor of preservation, which were then delivered to then-county board president John Stroger. Later that year, Preservation Chicago partnered with other preservation advocacy groups, including Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a concerted effort to preserve and repurpose the building. Those collective efforts finally paid off in 2010, when a majority of the Cook County board agreed to a preservation plan.

Begun in 1913 by architect Paul Gerhardt, the structure will be converted to administrative offices for the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. Gerhardt also designed Lane Tech High School. The estimated cost is $108,000,000 and is to be partially funded through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars.

The building, located at 1825 W. Harrison Street, opened in 1916. Cook County Hospital is one of Chicago’s most prominent buildings and was intended to look like a civic edifice rather than a mere hospital. Its façades are composed in a Classical Revival style with French Renaissance features, executed with dramatic detail. The building is famous nationwide and was featured in the film The Fugitive and was the inspiration for television shows St. Elsewhere and ER. The hospital was listed on the Nation Register of Historic Places in 2006.

The edifice is two blocks long, has eight floors and had four pavilions projecting from the rear, which have been demolished. Operating rooms and two amphitheaters took up the entire eighth floor.

Patients in the early part of the century were primarily European but by the end of World War II, African-American patients predominated. More than 10,000 doctors have practiced at County Hospital and a medical internship at Cook County Hospital was much sought and considered a prize.

In the early 1990’s, the County Board approved construction of a new hospital and in 2002 a $250 million new hospital named for sitting county board president John H. Stroger was completed. Funds were then earmarked for the demolition of the old main building. It is then that the preservation community sprung into action.

The efforts of Preservation Chicago, and other like-minded preservation organizations, helped to change the tide of public opinion against demolition and in favor of historic preservation and adaptive reuse, truly a win-win situation for all stakeholders.