MEDICAL DISTRICT — For nearly two decades, the sprawling old Cook County Hospital has sat vacant.
The Beaux-Arts classical-style building’s fate was in limbo as its terra cotta facade crumbled, and its interior was damaged from years of water seeping through its deteriorated roof.
Now, 18 months after the Civic Health Development Group broke ground on the restoration of the site at 1835 W. Harrison St., the old Cook County Hospital is months away from its next life as a hotel and office complex on the Near West Side.
The restoration is part of a $1 billion multiphase plan led by Murphy Development and Walsh Group to rehab the 106-year-old hospital and build apartments south of the rehabbed building to the Illinois Medical District.
When the project is completed in May, the former hospital will be home to a 210-room Hyatt House and Hyatt Place hotel, medical office space, a daycare center and a food hall, said Jeffrey Pezza, vice president Walsh Group.
The renovated building will also feature a museum paying tribute to the hospital’s legacy, Pezza said.
While the team has taken on several historic restorations including Chicago’s Oriental Theater, 32 W. Randolph St., and the old Chicago Motor Club at 68 E. Wacker Place, Pezza said the old Cook County Hospital presented unique challenges.
“A job like this has more risk … because of the facade and 17 years of neglect. … It’s a challenge and to make the budget work. It’s kind of a tight rope,” Pezza said.
Even so, Pezza said the group, consisting of various partners, including architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, worked together under a tight schedule to successfully complete the restoration and ensure the building remains intact for another 100 years.
In the 18 months since beginning the restoration, the team has worked extensively on the facade, spending more than $18 million to replace all of the windows and 4,160 terra cotta pieces on the exterior. All of the building’s interior was gutted except the old surgical theaters, said Ken Johnston, senior project manager at Walsh Group.
Ahead of the project’s June 2018 groundbreaking, Johnston said massive abandoned building created a“negative” mood in the surrounding area.
“The minute we put the construction fences, you could just feel some life coming back into this area of the city. It’s such an amazing transformation to be part of,” he said.
For Raymond Whearley, a 30-year-old assistant project manager of Walsh Group, the restoration holds a personal significance.
Whearley’s father and uncles were born in the old hospital he’s helping restore.
“It feels great to be part of something that is so historical and has a direct impact on me personally,” he said.
‘This Was Really Chicago’s Ellis Island’
Cook County Hospital first opened in 1857 and was used as a teaching hospital by Rush Medical School. The hospital, designed by architect Paul Gerhardt, was rebuilt in 1914. It closed after it was replaced by Stroger Hospital of Cook County in 2002.
In the following years, Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation, set out to convince Cook County officials to save the storied building, said Bonnie McDonald, CEO and president of the organization.
Beyond being architecturally significant, the old Cook County Hospital carries a wealth of personal history for many Chicago residents, McDonald said.
“This was really Chicago’s Ellis Island. … It was where anyone could get service and care at a time where people couldn’t afford that healthcare. Anyone could come to Cook County and they were not turned away,” McDonald said.
“It had the first blood bank in the entire country, as well as being one of the first to serve people suffering from HIV and AIDS,” McDonald said.
Ultimately, McDonald’s said the group had a conversation with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle who understood the vision to preserve the property.
Following an ongoing advocacy effort to preserve the old Cook County Hospital, a series of workshops were held to consider various plans for the site’s future in 2014, according to DNAinfo.
Two years later, Civic Health Development Group was selected as the firm that would redevelop the site north and south of the old hospital.
As part of the plan, called Harrison Square, the multiphase development will be anchored by the revamped old Cook County Hospital. The development will also include new buildings that will make way for 31,000 square-feet of office space, an apartment building and retail at the site according to the Harrison Square website.
The new development, expected to be completed over the next five years, is being privately funded with the exception of $24 million in federal historic tax credits, McDonald said.
During a recent hard-hat tour of the old hospital, Preckwinkle remembered her time as a freshman alderman, when she was elected to serve the 4th Ward in 1991. At the time, she would task her staff with going to Housing Court in an effort to save abandoned but “beautiful” old buildings in her ward from being demolished.
“When I became president of the [Cook County] board … we inherited this old building, and I had the opportunity as the president of the board to make sure this building got preserved,” Preckwinkle said.
She credited Landmarks Illinois for keeping the drumbeat alive for nearly 20 years as well as the development team for bringing the vision to life.
Asked about the importance of preserving the hospital, Preckwinkle echoed McDonald, stating the historical fabric of the building as being Chicago’s Ellis Island.
“If you think of iconic structures in New York its the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, in Cook County, I would argue its this building,” Preckwinkle said.
“For 180 years, Cook County Hospital has taken whoever comes in the door regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation or their ability to pay and I’m very proud of that,” Preckwinkle added.
Now, Preckwinkle said she’s eager to step foot in the newly restored building in the grand opening later this year.
In reflecting on the nearly 20 years of fighting to preserve the old Cook County Hospital, McDonald said throughout the many starts and stops along the way. It’s taken “a hardy dose of patience,” she said.
Beyond returning the building to its former glory, McDonald said the finished renovation will “signify what preservation can be if we just have the patience and we don’t give up on our historic places.”
“I think the Cook County Hospital is a model for what that longterm patience and vision can yield,” McDonald said. “If we had demolished [in 2002 when the hospital closed], we would be missing out on a billion dollars of economic activities with this project.”
Peek inside the old Cook County Hospital:
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