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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.

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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.

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"They're old enough that we think of them as old-fashioned and out of date and something we don't pay attention to, but not old enough that we've come to respect them," says Mr.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