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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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"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.

To Balkany's eye, the buildings suggested a deeper involvement. His research uncovered letters and drawings revealing that Gropius had in fact closely supervised the design of at least eight of the buildings, in some cases prescribing details down to the color of the paint.

"I thought, 'My gosh, Gropius's fingerprints are all over this,' " Balkany says.

But while he was busy attaching Gropius's name to the buildings, the city was laying plans to raze them. Officials want the 37-acre campus of Reese Hospital, which went bankrupt last September, to build an Olympic village for the 2016 Games, for which Chicago is a finalist. Even if Chicago doesn't win the Games, officials envision a new residential development that they say will help invigorate the South Side.

The decision to demolish has angered preservationists in part because it came with little or no public debate. But Robert Bruegmann, an architectural historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the controversy reflects a larger struggle over the fate of modern architecture. "There's an emotional tug of war over buildings of this time that has been playing out nationally," he says.

Part of the issue is timing. By convention buildings have rarely been considered for historic preservation until they are at least 50 years old. Buildings from the middle of the 20th century have only recently reached that age. Indeed, until Balkany linked the hospital buildings to Walter Gropius, few paid them much attention.

"They're old enough that we think of them as old-fashioned and out of date and something we don't pay attention to, but not old enough that we've come to respect them," says Mr. Harrington.

Moreover, there's still ambivalence toward modernism, a movement premised on a break with the past and characterized by a rejection of ornament, geometric severity, and the use of modern materials like glass, steel, and concrete. Indeed, the preservation movement emerged in the 1960s in part as a reaction against modernism and in defense of older buildings that were being torn down to make room for the new.

"To the general public, it's very difficult to think of a steel-and-glass building as an architectural landmark," says Bruegmann.

The Gropius buildings are neither spectacular nor monumental. But this modesty of design is part of their distinction, say preservationists. They argue that the buildings have been designed not to stand out individually but to harmonize with each other.

The buildings share common features like sand-colored brick, latticed awnings, and similarly patterned windows. Even utilitarian buildings like the hospital laundry and power plant display the same careful attention to architectural detail.

Admirers like Balkany have little doubt that the buildings should be saved, if only because of the Gropius name. "They don't have the brand-name appeal of Frank Lloyd Wright, but this is the only group of Gropius buildings in Chicago, and Chicago is the first city of American architecture," says Blair Kamin, a prize-winning architectural critic for The Chicago Tribune.

But he and others say that the buildings have increased importance because they belong to a larger group of buildings on the South Side that illustrate in a small space the birth of modern architecture. These buildings include nearby works by Wright; Louis Sullivan; and Mies van der Rohe, who designed the IIT campus, an acknowledged masterpiece of modernism.

To Harrington, Gropius's buildings also hint at an effort more subtle than simply bringing Bauhaus to Chicago. Views of Lake Michigan and careful attention to orientation and landscaping suggest that Gropius was trying to adapt an architectural style conceived in Europe to the conditions of America. "The response to the natural world is, I think, somewhat more American than European," he says. "It's an understanding that nature is there first and we insert ourselves. The European model is that we're in a cultural landscape and adjusting it to our purpose."

Balkany had hoped to write a book about the buildings. Instead, since winter he's been leading the fight to save them. Even as the city prepares for demolition, he's still trying to rouse public opinion, organizing meetings, handing out leaflets, and appealing to architectural preservationists for help. He's succeeded, at least in part. A growing number of architectural preservation organizations have come out in defense of the Gropius buildings. But his efforts have produced no outpouring of sympathy from either city officials or the public.

That doesn't mean everyone is indifferent. Adrienne Stanley was walking her dog recently through the shade-covered grounds when Balkany approached and handed her a leaflet. "It's so sad," she says. "I loved coming over here and looking at the buildings. Why can't they use them?"

A security guard sitting in his car on the far edge of the campus echoed her sentiments. "Nobody wants them torn down," he says.

Recently, Illinois Landmarks, an organization that tries to save important buildings from demolition, offered a compromise plan that would preserve eight of the Reese hospital buildings, including four "codesigned" by Gropius. Balkany's own Gropius in Chicago Coalition plans within the month to advance a compromise of its own that would save all the Gropius buildings.

The city has talked to architects and preservation groups, but so far it has shown little willingness to compromise. Publicly, at least, it has not wavered from its contention that the requirements of an Olympic village demand the destruction of all the Gropius buildings. Molly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the city's planning department, says the city has had to move quickly to prepare the site for new construction because "we were dealing with a tight timeline."

Indeed, contractors have already cut down trees around the buildings. They have begun demolition of the interiors. On Aug. 6, the city's Landmarks Commission, while expressing support for the preservationists, voted down a proposal that it recommend placing the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We want to be supportive of the city," says Balkany. "But time is running out."

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