Q&A: Preservationist Grahm Balkany on Chicago’s Threatened Gropius Buildings

Despite its failed Olympics bid, Chicago is poised to demolish a historic campus.

Balkany in front of a Gropius-designed power plant on the Reese hospital campus. Photo: Edward Lifson

When Chicago recently dreamt of hosting the 2016 Olympics, its bid included the demolition of an unused hospital complex to make way for an Olympic Village. Then a young architect in town named Grahm Balkany sounded alarm bells that some of the buildings, the planning, and other aspects were the work of the pioneer of modern architecture and creator of the Bauhaus–Walter Gropius! Once Chicago lost the Olympics to Rio you’d think the city would have called off the bulldozers, right?  Alas, if you think that, obviously you don’t know “The Chicago Way.”

During our recent conversation, Balkany looked battle-weary, as if he fears that if he ever got a good night’s sleep, he’d wake up to find the Gropius buildings gone. It often takes a transplant to show locals what they’ve got. Balkany moved from Denver to Chicago in 1998. “Specifically for the architecture,” he says. “I saw a beautiful Gothic Revival limestone field house, and learned Chicago was about to tear it down! I thought, man, you don’t have buildings like this where I’m from and here they toss them out like rubbish.” He wrote letters to newspapers, and helped establish Preservation Chicago to advocate. Three years ago Balkany brought to light drawings, letters, and blueprints that seem to show that Walter Gropius and his firm, the Architects’ Collaborative, were heavily involved in designing at least eight buildings, plus the master and site plans and the landscaping of the 37-acre Michael Reese Hospital complex on the near south side by Lake Michigan. Balkany founded the Gropius in Chicago Coalition to try to save it all. The city of Chicago, which now owns it, has other ideas.

Did you celebrate when Chicago lost the bid for the 2016 Olympics?

We would never celebrate anything that is a loss for Chicago. But I admit a part of us rejoiced. Only that part that sees this as an opportunity to revisit the premature decision to demolish Michael Reese Hospital.

After Chicago lost the Olympics I spoke with Molly Sullivan, the spokeswoman for the planning department. She said the city’s plans haven’t changed.  They continue with preparations for demolition. She said the site–by the lake–remains attractive to developers and the city wants new housing and retail there to connect the flourishing South Loop and South Side. I asked her if it’s important to the city to preserve the legacy of Gropius and the Bauhaus in Chicago and she said she’d rather defer on that for now.

(Balkany laughs and sighs at the same time.)  Developing and preservation are not antithetical. Older cities do it all the time. Chicago’s approach is barbaric. Despite the fact that they have no viable plan for the site, no financing, and no developer, they won’t call off the demolition.

It’s said that in Chicago even taxi drivers argue about architecture. Do the people care about saving Gropius’s work?

In the more than ten years that I’ve been involved in preservation in Chicago, I’ve never seen such a strong community response in favor of saving buildings. People with no knowledge of architecture relate to that place on an instinctive level. That’s the sign that urban design is really working.

100_1861The roofline of Gropius’s Cummings Pavilion (1958), on the Michael Reese hospital campus. Click here to launch a slide-show tour of the campus.

Describe the old hospital complex.

This is one of the richest bodies of work by Walter Gropius anywhere. Michael Reese captivated him on and off from 1945 to about ’59. When you’re there it’s as if you’re inhabiting Walter Gropius’s vision of city planning. It’s what he called a “total work of architecture.” You see a complete relationship between landscape and buildings with spaces flowing in and out of one another, and the relationship of those spaces perfectly proportioned and yet organic and free. It was magical.

The landscape was unusual for Chicago, with slight changes in topography. The landscapes were alive and changing and reflected the principles of Gropius and his colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, including Hideo Sasaki, a premiere landscape architect. Michael Reese was his first major independent project and in it he showed his ability to collaborate with master Modernists to bring out their vision while bringing his own ideas to the table. Sasaki brought playfulness to the campus that was a foil for the rigid and streamlined forms of Gropius.

On August 1st, that landscape was destroyed.  Almost all the trees, bushes, and flowerbeds were removed.  Tell me about that day.

It was gloomy that day by chance. We came off of Lake Shore Drive at 31st Street, across the bridge. You feel a slight rise there as you go over the Illinois Central tracks. Normally there’s an exhilaration. You’d come over the tracks and you’d be in this Utopian city, a new kind of place, the embodiment of principles of many Modernists.

That day I looked to my right and in the distance I could see a pavilion in the center of the campus.  I said, “My God,  something’s wrong here! You could never see that building from here!”  The city had clear-cut. I felt great despair. They only left vegetation around the perimeter, which I feel is deceitful. People loved those parks. The hospital board always had a policy to keep the landscape open and people used it and treated it like they were public parks, even though they were privately owned.

Mayor Richard M. Daley’s father, Richard J. Daley, whom Chicagoans call “Richard the First,” allowed Louis Sullivan buildings to be torn down.  How does this compare to that?

Destroying Michael Reese is the second chapter of the demolition of the great works of Chicago. There hasn’t been a demolition tragedy on this scale since 1972, when Louis Sullivan’s Stock Exchange was torn down.  

Okay, if you believe in “sweet revenge,” do you think that if Chicago had respected the ghost of Gropius that they might have fared better in the Olympic voting?

I absolutely do. Chicago’s bid said we’d have one of the most environmentally friendly Olympics ever. Destroying all these trees and these buildings burst a hole in that.

What chances would you give the campus of being spared?

That changes every day but I feel we’re gaining. Today I’ll be optimistic and say there’s a 75 percent chance the Michael Reese campus will be saved. Now that the Olympics bid is over officials can support us–it’s less politically contentious. This could be a potential tourist draw with nearby works by Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, designed by another modern master and former Bauhaus director, Mies van der Rohe.

So how would you adaptively reuse these thirty-seven acres?

Housing and retail as the city wants, but reuse what is already there. All the vision for the Olympic Village can be incorporated beautifully into an expansion of this campus as a new hyper-environmentally-sensitive neighborhood. The hospital buildings lend themselves to reuse as residences, shops, and a small museum. A commuter train stops right at the entrance to this campus. Make this transit-oriented development and fill in the gaps with cutting-edge architecture. That would be a wonderful legacy of this entire saga.

That Gothic Revival limestone field house that they were tearing down when you first came to Chicago, and that you tried to save–what ever happened to it?

They tore it down.

The architecture critic Edward Lifson blogs at Hello Beautiful!

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