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Battle to save Chicago's Gropius architecture has preservationists and city at odds

Marked for demolition, the modernist buildings sit on a site pegged for the 2016 Olympics.

By Richard MertensCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 21, 2009


Grahm Balkany's mood lurches from admiration to anguish as he strolls among a group of small, flat-roofed hospital buildings on Chicago's South Side.

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"Look how progressive that is," he exclaims, pointing to where slatted awnings filter sunlight that falls on patients' rooms. A moment later, he gazes mournfully on scattered trash, uncut grass, and other signs of neglect. "I can't tell you how beautiful this was at one point," he says.

Recently, while studying engineering and architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Mr. Balkany discovered that one of the great minds of modern architecture, Walter Gropius, lay behind many of these buildings, built in the 1950s and early '60s in a great gust of urban renewal on the South Side. But what began as a triumph for scholarship and Chicago's architectural history has quickly soured. The city intends to tear down at least 28 buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital campus, including those linked to Gropius, to make room for the 2016 Olympics. Architectural preservationists have so far protested in vain.

"There's no question that Walter Gropius was instrumental in the overall master planning of the campus and in designing many of the buildings," says Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, a group that tries to bring attention to important buildings that are imperiled. "On that basis alone, at least the buildings he designed should be preserved."

Chicago is famous for its modern architecture. Incorporated in 1837 and destroyed by fire in 1871, the city was a clean slate on which architects could invent the new. The first skyscrapers went up in Chicago. From his studio on the city's outskirts, Frank Lloyd Wright revolutionized the American home. Later, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a refugee from Nazi Germany, built the spare, glass-and-steel structures that made Chicago a center of modernism.

Kevin Harrington, a professor of art and architectural history at IIT and coauthor of "Chicago's Famous Buildings," says the city's architecture stands out not only for its compressed history but also for its richness and stylistic continuity. "People from all over the world recognize it," he says. "It's kind of a coherence of form and material and vocabulary."

Until recently, Gropius was thought to have played only a minor part in this history. The omission was significant. Together with Mies van der Rohe and the French architect Le Corbusier, Gropius is considered one of the pioneers of modernism, the style that transformed architecture in the middle of the 20th century. He founded the Bauhaus school in Germany after World War I, left the country in the 1930s, and later taught at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Beginning in the mid-1940s he drew up a master plan to enlarge Reese Hospital, which local architects filled in with individual buildings. At least that's what everyone thought.