Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Preservation Con Game

posted by Peter Rossi

A time-honored NIMBY tactic is to assert an opinion frequently in hopes that it will become regarded as fact. If we scream frequently that the Doctor's Hospital should be preserved, this will shift the debate from "is the Doctor's Hospital worth preserving?" to "how can we preserve it?" The NIMBYs are now applying this tactic in discussions with Chicago Maroon reporters.

In a recent editorial , Maroon editors urge the university to seriously consider an alternative "preservation" proposal drawn up under the auspices of the Hyde Park Historical Society preservation committee. Does this imply that the Maroon editorial board accepts the proposition that the Doctor's Hospital should be preserved?

Those who advocate the preservation of this building have made no arguments regarding its architectural merits. It is not a unique building (the firm that designed it produced over 100 similar structures) nor is it an exemplar of any style of architecture. The only thing we say say about the building is that it is reasonably old. To my eye, it has that gloomy look that reminds you of obsolete institutions such as state mental hospitals or orphanages.

The Maroon editorial states that our local preservationists claim Doctor's Hospital is an "architectural landmark." It is not. No city, state or federal landmarks agency has declared this to be the case. A private preservation group who call themselves the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois has put the Doctor's Hospital on their "watchlist." There is no formal criteria for inclusion on this list and inclusion does not constitute landmark status.

So what this boils down to is that a handful of Hyde Parkers have declared the Doctor's Hospital to be worth preserving and have not been required to justify that conclusion.

It is not even clear what the alternative preservation proposal consists of. Are there cost estimates, architectural plans, and engineering studies? The Maroon news story quotes local "preservationist" Jack Spicer as arguing (quite irresponsibly) that you can have your preservation cake and eat it too. That is, it might be cheaper to preserve the buildings. It stands to reason that to preserve even the facade of the hospital will be much more expensive than building a middle of the line Marriott.

But even if it turned out that Doctor's Hospital was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's chauffeur, we still must ask - could this structure make a viable hotel? If you were a prospective student, parent, or visiting faculty, would you want to stay behind this ugly facade? It looks like a Columbia University dorm circa 1940. It will make the Omni New Haven look like the Ritz and the Durant Hotel in Berkeley look like the Savoy. The Stanford Park in Palo Alto will seem like Shangri-La.

Going the preservation route will maximize the chances that this site will remain an embarrassing eyesore and visitors to the U of C will stay downtown. We need a hotel. Preservation can't and shouldn't work for this site.

I would encourage Maroon reporters to ask hard questions of preservation advocates and check some of the assertions which are going unverified. We will all be better off for it. This is something that our local newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald, should do but we have learned that the Maroon is a far better source of real news. The Maroon has a 50 per cent larger circulation to boot -- so, go to it guys!


Alec Brandon said...

I'm not actually on the board anymore, but I think their point is just that if we have to choose b/t compromise hotel and no hotel, compromise hotel is the no brainer.

This seems reasonable to me, although I don't think that's the dichotomy we're looking at.

chicago pop said...

The only reason the "preservationists" appear to be the spokespersons for the Drs Hospital opposition is because the University did such an awful job with PR for this project before it was unveiled in July 07.

This allowed the many small groups with objections to rally around a dubious bid to save a shabby and unremarkable brick facade.

Among the many balls dropped, one stands out: at the same meeting where the University unveiled its plans, it announced that it would contract for a traffic study. Bad timing. The traffic study should have been done beforehand and the results put on the screen at the July meeting for all to see. Same with parking. Addressing and defusing concerns about parking and congestion -- and refusing to let them become NIMBY rallying points -- should have been one of the first priorities. Instead, some drone from Marriott insisted that the parking ratios were just fine. If they weren't, Marriott would lose money, and Marriott isn't in the business of losing money.

You can guess how well that went over.

Memo to the U of C: don't shoot yourself in the foot next time. Do your prep work, get the PR right, and don't put wonk-drones in front of a hostile audience.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I agree with Alec. I don't think the editorial buys the preservation argument hook, line, and sinker. I think they're saying the U of C should go to the table and look at it, just to satisfy that argument and get on with things already.

The interior photos of the hospital show that there isn't much that's old and elegant inside, so the debate should be framed this way: Is the exterior worth saving, and would re-building around the exterior be cost-effective?

Peter Rossi said...

the baited hook has been presented to the Maroon. I did not say it was swallowed. I have more confidence in the intelligence of the Maroon edtorial board than that.

But why doesn't anyone challenge this stuff like "it is an architectural landmark.?" That is false.

What do these alternative plans look like? Once you ask the U to "seriously consider" them, you are legitimizing something that might be (I haven't seen it myself) a god awful horror.

As I said, I look forward to Maroon reporters and editors digging into this story.

best of luck!

Peter Rossi said...

everyone who disagrees with my post needs to answer the question:

would you want to stay in a hotel that has that facade?

It can't be preserved because it can't be viable as a hotel.

Peter Rossi said...


at this early stage in the game, why would we tie one arm behind our backs? Who says we have to choose b/w a compromise hotel and no hotel.

Would you advise the U to invest 10 million + (you know that there will be a subsidy to White lodging) in something that won't attract any lodgers?

reallyboring said...

I agree with Elizabeth's comment, and with the general sentiment that the only debate is over preserving the exterior. Since the building was used until relatively recently, there's nothing of value to preserve inside. But that actually opens up preservation options that wouldn't exist if the interior were a concern.

I have a general problem with the framing of this post, though. Arguments over preservation are always and inherently subjective, between those who like or find interesting some building, and those who would rather replace it. Each side in an argument like this tends to have its own "facts", be they quantifiable studies about the need for a hotel and how it would fit into the neighborhood, or a more subjective sense of historical importance or aesthetic value. You're clearly arguing here from the former point of view (as is usually the case here), which is fine, but you can't expect the advocates for preservation to cough up some quantifiable amount of "merits" to fit neatly into a cost/benefit analysis. That won't ever happen.

I like the compromise idea. Hyde Park needs a hotel, badly. But (here are some "merits" for you to tot up) the Doctor's Hospital, if it weren't boarded up and if it had nice landscaping, would be an elegant, understated counterpart to the park across the street, and could serve as the base for a unique taller hotel structure rising above it, making use of the facade. The building has historical significance, both because of the prominence of the architects as well as because it is rooted in Hyde Park's past as the premier railroad suburb of Chicago. Redevelopment that incorporates the parts of it that can be saved while bringing a hotel to the neighborhood would be the best of both worlds.

chicago pop said...

I think if we really want to tackle this question, we need to put aside the question of whether you or I or potential hotel guests like the way the exterior looks. That is ultimately a subjective judgement, and an unwinnable argument.

We need to get at the premise of facadism, which is what would be involved in the case of Drs Hospital (destroying or gutting the building but preserving the exterior shell). There's a whole lot of controversy about this practice (think Maxwell Street), and I bet you the record of NIMBYs opposing facadism is pretty strong -- resulting in a nice little contradiction in the case of our Drs Hospital.

Check out this passage from the Preservation Chicago website:

Facadism has done a great deal to erode the value of historic buildings by attaching them to parking garages or hiding them behind enclosed shopping malls. Our organization seeks to make historic preservation relevant by allowing buildings to continue their useful lives as buildings, in context – not as figurative headstones or museum installations.

The point is, allowing this building to continue to exist as this building is probably impossible. So then you're committing a preservation sin.

Peter Rossi said...

do be as fair as possible to the Maroon editorial board, I changed the second sentence of the second paragraph to be a question.

I would like to know the answer:

Does the Maroon editorial board think the DH is worth preserving?

Peter Rossi said...

chicago pop-

there are two distinct issues:

1. is there anything of arch merit at the DH?

2. can it be viable as a hotel?

my question (would you stay....?) is directed at issue #2.

So is preservation merely a matter of opinion or are there objective criteria that can be used to decide what to preserve. If there are such criteria, have they been applied here?

chicago pop said...

I'm suggesting that the way you're putting #2 is itself subjective and therefore can't really be relied on to make a point. Some people might like it, some people might not. But what's the principle behind the issue?

If you want some more objective arguments for why preserving just the facade is a problem, then there are plenty of preservationists who have already made the arguments for you and can help you out. Google facadism and go from there. I think it would be worth doing a post on this topic.

Alec Brandon said...

Does the Maroon editorial board think the DH is worth preserving?

While I don't serve anymore, so this is not me speaking in anyway shape or form, for the board, I would guess probably not.

Peter Rossi said...

ahmen, Alec

ayeff said...

peter rossi asks:
would you want to stay in a hotel that has that facade?

Yes, absolutely I would. I think that at least the central portion of the facade of DH, attached to a modern but respectful tower, would be much more interesting than a "middle of the line Marriott." One doesn't have to preserve the whole building.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Ayeff, before saying that, wouldn't you want to know how much it would cost to build something around the facade, and compare that cost with demolishing everything and starting from scratch? I'm not an expert, but I think it might be difficult to build inside an existing shell, especially when the second building has a different use. Clearly the facade has some value to you, but there's got to be a price at which it's not worth saving.

And we're not even talking about public money here, we're talking about the University's money. (Although I guess it's easy to give away someone else's money!)

chicago pop said...

Ah, but elizabeth, you know we only think about dollars and cents here, not spiritual values like free parking and unobstructed lakeviews (for the people that already have them) and the peace and quiet of living next to a major freight rail trunk line and the Metra tracks (the regular rumble of which will be drowned out by the raging bachelor parties in the Marriott, with strippers stumbling into the street and freaking out your grandmother in on her way back to Vista Homes and all the little children playing on the empty sidewalk).

Richard Gill said...

OH NO, the nightmares, they're coming back! After reading Peter Rossi's post here, and Chicago Pop's photo essay about Doctor's Hospital, I'm seeing pinwheels and having flashbacks. I was in some of the rooms in those pictures, on "official business".

When it was the Illinois Central Hospital and I worked for the railroad, I actually had physicals done to me in that building; surgery too. The medical treatment was really quite good (and free for railroad employees), but they made you get an annual physical there--the infamous "Two-Day". They made you swallow a can of Havoline 10W40 to clean yourself out, and they used a proctoscope the size of a Louisville Slugger that they kept on dry ice. And all you got to eat or drink for two days was a 12-ounce can of glucose water. And then you drank that tankard of chalk mixed with White Out. They found body cavities you didn't know you had. At the end, they either told you that you were dying, or that you'd probably live another year until the next physical.

Don't save that building. Not one brick. To paraphrase President Ronald Reagan, "Alderman Hairston, tear down those walls."

chicago pop said...

Richard, sounds like you're describing the delectable barium milkshake, or some version thereof. I'm sure there are many others like you who have fond memories of "two-days" at Illinois Central Hospital.

I hope some of them can share fond memories (and photos?)of their procedures at the next Drs Hospital community meeting.

bornatreese said...

I just want a hotel. It's ridiculous. Any time any university department has people here for a conference, they identify a downtown hotel for those people. All those people, all those miles, all that gasoline, all that pollution. No money spent at all our cute charming restaurants and nightspots in the neighborhood... hey, maybe that's why they don't exist.

Peter Rossi said...


your stories remind me of a scene from W. C. Field's classic, The Bank Dick. A doctor is pictured examining an emaciated man. He says "cut out all health foods. That will be $15; the nurse will give you your clothes back when you pay the bill."

Jennifer said...

Maybe it will burn itself down.

Note: I do not condone arson, I just think that would be deliciously ironic.

Raymond said...

chicago pop: Within 10 years or so, I expect the freight trains to stop running through Hyde Park. The Canadian National railroad's application to buy the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern line indicates they would give up the line through Hyde Park, but they have to build a new junction down around 79th Street first, so we're talking 5-10 years.

Metra would still run on the tracks, but no freights. NIMBYs win again...(though they don't even know they are winning this one).

ayeff said...

Elizabeth, I would absolutely want to know the cost before deciding whether it is worth preserving. It is by no means a building that deserves saving at any price. My point was only that the building is not nearly as awful as Peter suggests. Parts of it would make a fine hotel, but if the cost is excessive, then pull it down. I just hope that whatever they put in its place is more architecturally interesting than a middle-of-the-road Marriott. I think the university should consider the preservation plan in good faith.

The compromise plan for the Point is an example of where those pushing for preservation improved the original plan. This too can happen with DH, but we must avoid the same fate as the Point.

Peter Rossi said...


what you have to say is very interesting. I sort of like the sound of rumbling freight at night.


EdJ said...

I don't like the look of Doctors Hospital as a hotel and I have to admint that I don't really care for the design that the university and White came up with for the hotels either. With all of the exciting design that the university has been putting up over the last few years at the B-School, Max Palevsky Dorms, the Gymnasium, and the parking garage at 55th and Ellis, I think we've come to expect a little bit better design wise. A less than desiriable design does not mean that we should have to accept an even worse design from a design form the last century.

Louis Sullivan wrote "Form follows function." The problem with the fake preservationist idea is that they are trying to wedge function into a form that was cutting edge for a hospital in 1915. It's not even run of the mill for a hotel in 2008.

Raymond said...

Me, too, Peter. I will miss them when they are gone, but I hope the project gets delayed for years and years and then forgotten. Sort of a reverse NIMBY reaction!

chicago pop said...

The problem with the fake preservationist idea is that they are trying to wedge function into a form that was cutting edge for a hospital in 1915.

That nicely gets at the contradiction of the whole thing.

I can't imagine what kind of tower would sit on that medical version of Buckingham Palace and not look ridiculous.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Ayeff, regarding the Compromise Plan, "those pushing for preservation" achieved this: the top two steps would be made of limestone blocks (meanwhile the swimming access was cut in half)...and then they rejected it out of hand. They were willing to lose everything, for further (unclear) demands. Unlike you and me, they aren't afraid of the "at any price" model of preservation.

I'd like to ask the original task force members their memory of it, but it seemed to me negotiations with the City were on such friendly terms when the the 9-Point Plan was presented, perhaps they may have been able to achieve this final concession (top two steps in limestone) just for the asking -- that is, without scaring the City away with angry picketing and insults.

Peter Rossi said...

edj has a good point. If you want to fault the U plan it is not for lack of preservation but for lack of imagination and lower quality than the world class buildings that have been erected recently on campus.

Actually, chicago pop made this point in his orginal post on the doctor's hospital meeting.

However, what the U is doing is trying to get a private developer to build and run a hotel on this site. This is not the same as building libraries and labs that are entirely subsidized by donor funds.

Peter Rossi said...

re beth's comment in response to ayeff-

on the original task force, we didn't just scream "liar" at the City like the Save the Pointers. We analyzed the engineering reports of the City and showed them that they had over-engineered the thing.

We also got extensive coverage by the Trib and the Sun-times (including a Trib editorial) not just the Herald.

This made the City folks interested in compromise.

The superintendent of the CPD wanted to get this done. I think we could have gotten the two steps and had this thing built.

But then the STPers got in and thoroughly alienated everyone and lost immediate credibility by claiming absurd stuff like the Point could be repaired "in place" for a few million dollars. Complete nonsense.

EdJ said...

Peter -

While the original proposed design showed a lack of imagination, "preserving" the Doctors Hospital shell shows no imagination at all.

Otto said...

I sort of like the sound of rumbling freight at night.

For what it's worth, local rail is still using analog radio on VHF; 161.025 MHz just broke squelch.

Elizabeth Fama said...

There goes Otto, speaking in tongues again!