Photo courtesy of smaedli on Flickr

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks may not be aptly armed for its next big challenge: navigating the agendas of preservationists and a private university to determine the fate of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital building. Down two architects following last month’s mayoral appointments, the new landmarks team, which met for the first time August 4th, has been criticized for its limited design background.

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin notes that two of the appointments— Anita Blanchard, a University of Chicago medical professor and the Obamas’ obstetrician, and Tony Hu, a local chef and community activist—lack training in either architecture or preservation. A former alderwoman and a former county assessor were also appointed to the commission, each bringing more applicable experience than their fellow appointees, Kamin writes, though not much.

The four new appointees join landscape architect Ernest Wong of Site Design Group, as well as an historian and a longtime real estate broker, the three being carryovers from the previous board, according to the mayor’s office. Eleanor Gorski, AIA, has taken over as head of the Historic Preservation Division, which staffs the commission. Architects Ben Weese, FAIA, of Weese Langley Weese Architects; Ed Torrez, AIA, of Bauer Latoza Studio; historic preservationist Phyllis Ellin; and another community activist were not reappointed—calling into question the architectural credo of this decision-making body.

Chicago’s vague landmarks ordinance might be partly to blame for the imbalance. Most large cities— including New York, Boston, Denver, and others— specify the number of design professionals to be appointed to their landmarks or historic preservation commissions. Chicago’s commission bylines call for its nine members to be selected from “the disciplines of history, architecture, historic architecture, planning, archaeology, real estate, historic preservation, or related fields,” also working in “persons who have demonstrated special interest, knowledge, or experience in architecture, history, neighborhood preservation, or related disciplines.”

Torrez, who was discharged in July after five years on the commission, says that he is surprised the new group doesn’t include an architect. “You’ve got to fill that position, a design professional or a preservation professional should be included,” he says. “If we’re reviewing permit drawings, it’s probably a good idea to have somebody, like an architect, who can read the drawings [and] understand drawing plans and elevations, because those are the materials used to communicate the intent of these projects.”

Regardless, the new committee can expect a challenging initiation as early as its September meeting.

A battle over Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital building has been mounting since March, when building owner Northwestern University announced its plans for demolition. A downtown alderman brokered an agreement with the university to wait 60 days before applying for a demolition permit, allowing a review of a study by a local preservationist organization on the hospital’s reuse possibilities.  In June—shortly before the waiting period ended—the landmarks commission added the building to its agenda for consideration as a historic landmark, a designation that would save the cantilevered concrete structure from the wrecker’s ball. The issue was then tabled to allow for further discussion between the university and the city. It could surface for official review as early as next month.

On one side of the debate is the university, which cites financial concerns and specifications for its proposed facility as reasons for tearing down the former hospital. On the other side are preservationists, who hope to save an iconic piece of the city’s architecture.

Preservationists claim that the 12-story, clover-shaped Modernist structure, largely vacant since 2007, has potential for reuse, outlined in an April study by the non-profit Landmarks Illinois. “We’re saying that this could really be a real landmark building for the campus,” says Lisa DiChiera, the organization’s advocacy director. The local group is spearheading a campaign to draw awareness to the proposed demolition and has garnered support from AIA Chicago, the Society of Architectural Historians, and the Downers Grove, Ill.–based Landmark Conservancy, among others.

Northwestern, which did not return calls for comment, has responded with its own internal staff analysis and third-party study, determining that a renovation of Goldberg’s building is “not feasible” given the desired building specifications. The school’s website notes Northwestern “has been consistent and transparent with the community and elected officials for 15 years” about its demolition and construction plans for the Prentice site. According to the school’s analysis, renovating the existing structure would net 120,705 assignable square feet at 39 percent gross area efficiency; by comparison, a new building could bring 170,414-assignable-square-feet at 55 percent efficiency—with the renovation being cheaper but yielding less usable space than the rebuild.

The issue now rests with the city, says DiChiera, adding that she’s content with a deferred vote so long as the university upholds its agreement to forgo a demolition permit until the commission has officially reviewed the case. According to a spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development, a final determination of the building’s status could take up to nine months once the commission reviews the case.

But the commission’s dearth of architects could make this review challenging. In an open letter to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former commissioner Weese suggested that the permit committee—a smaller quorum within the commission that reviews permit applications for work to current and proposed city landmarks and could determine the fate of the Prentice building pending the commission’s vote — remain chaired by an architect, as the “problems addressed are predominantly architectural in nature.” 

The mayor’s office is holding fast to the view that its current landmarks commissioners bring “outstanding professional experience, personal background and diversity” which allows them to look at issues including “neighborhood preservation, urban planning and real estate” in addition to architecture and preservation, a spokesman said.

According to the city’s housing and economic development department, approximately one-third of the Historic Preservation Division, which vets the issues that come before the commission, is staffed by architects.

 “They do 95 percent of the work—the research, the interviews with the people, meeting the public,” Torrez says. “We look at it when they’ve done all their work.”

Still, the commission has been anticipating the Prentice debate’s arrival at city hall. “We knew about it and we knew that it was coming,” says Torrez.

Disclosure: Hallie Busta is an undergraduate student at Northwestern University.

Post updated Tuesday, August 9, to correct Lisa DiChiera's title. DiChiera is the director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois. She is not the executive director. We regret the error.