Column: Chicagoans of the Year in architecture: The team that helped revive old Cook County Hospital

Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

The rebirth of old Cook County Hospital, which once had a near-death experience, would have been worth celebrating in any year. But it took on special meaning in 2020, as doctors, nurses and other health care workers battled the deadly coronavirus.

Beautifully remade as a mixed-use building with two Hyatt hotels, a food hall, a day care center and medical offices, the beloved Beaux-Arts landmark at 1835 W. Harrison Street began a new chapter in its storied life even as it continued to symbolize the highest ideals of public health.

The Tribune recognizes the leaders of the redesign — Brian Lee and Adam Semel of the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Jackie Koo of KOO Architecture — as Chicagoans of the Year in architecture.

Their efforts weren’t just attractive to the eye. They stirred strong feelings.

Lee, a design partner whose award-winning projects include the Chinatown public library and a public library-public housing development in Little Italy, thought that few of the doctors who trained at the legendary hospital were still around.

Not so.

“The thing that surprised me was hearing from actual doctors, practicing today, who are shocked and so grateful that the building had been brought back to life,” he said in a telephone interview. “They were grateful that we had brought back a piece of Chicago history.”

Koo, designer of The Wit hotel on State Street and the forthcoming Sable hotel at Navy Pier, heard reactions that reached beyond the medical community.

“That was really one of the most rewarding things: the reaction from every person that I’ve met saying they have a connection with that hospital. ‘My mom was treated there.’ Or, ‘I was born there.’”

The renovation, she said, “spoke to their stories.”

Completed in 1916, with a grand neoclassical facade that suggested its civic purpose, the hospital had a renowned medical history, including the world’s first blood bank.

It served as the inspiration for the TV medical drama “ER” and became known as Chicago’s “Ellis Island” because of its devotion to caring for indigent African Americans and Hispanics who had migrated to the city.

But in 2003, then-Cook County Board President John Stroger aimed to demolish the old hospital after a new one named for him opened to the south. Protests from historic preservationists and the political muscle of the Cook County Board of Commissioners averted that outcome.

In 2016, county officials selected the Civic Health Development Group to remake the hospital and surrounding land in the Illinois Medical District.

The team, led by Murphy Development Group, includes Walsh Investors, MB Real Estate, the Plenary Group and Granite Cos. They, too, deserve great credit for transforming a building that had degenerated into a vacant hulk.

Mold, moss, trees and ferns grew inside. Squatters covered walls with graffiti. On their first visit inside, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architects wore Hazmat suits, fearing they would encounter harmful chemicals left over from the hospital. Few were found, they said.

Working with Northbrook-based Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, the architects carefully restored the old hospital’s classical facade, including its three-story Ionic columns and faces of lions and cherubs.

Inside, they teamed up with Koo to reanimate key historic features, like the two-story main lobby and its stylish staircase of gray Tennessee marble.

New windows and light wells brightened the ultralong corridors of the 550-foot-long building. Former skylit operating rooms were turned into guest rooms.

Open since August, the food hall — named “Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall” in honor of renowned Chicago surgeon John B. Murphy, great-uncle of John T. Murphy, head of the Murphy Development Group — offers a wide range of options instead of dull hospital food.

In the long run, the project’s benefits are likey to extend beyond its borders.

“By restoring this building first, you unlock the whole neighborhood,” said Semel, a managing partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He anticipates that the rejuvenated hospital will extend the energy of the Fulton Market district and the area around the United Center to the now-dull medical district.

Reviving the old hospital carries extra significance for the Skidmore firm because much of its current work is overseas, in countries like China.

“It was so easy to get on a plane and pursue these opportunities around the word. People wanted us to do iconic signature buildings,” Lee said. “We discovered that we were doing less work in the city that we were located in. It causes you to ask the question: What impact do you really have in a town that really treasures architecture?”

Now we know: A treasure rejuvenated.

Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.

bkamin@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @BlairKamin