The hulking building at 1900 W. Harrison is a Chicago landmark, without a doubt.
For 95 years, old Cook County Hospital has served as a center for health care, a tribute to architecture and a set for TV shows and movies, such as “E.R.” and “The Fugitive.”
But its future was uncertain when the gleaming John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital opened in 2002. What would happen to the old hospital? It could have been torn down or renovated for condos. Anything, really, was better than having it stand surrounded by cold iron fences, a home to pigeons, with vines creeping up the sides of the building.
So now Cook County commissioners are debating whether to commit $107 million to rehabbing the building as office space for the Cook County Health and Hospitals System administration.
Commissioners are also debating cutting the county’s sales tax, which would put a hole in the budget. Some wonder if spending $107 million on office space is wise at this point.
Back in May, commissioners retained Jones Lang LaSalle Americas to identify ways to reuse County Hospital, a moniker many still apply to Stroger Hospital. The hospital is not fit for medical use, according to a 2005 plan written by U.S. Equities; the floors can’t support heavier medical equipment.
But Jones Lang LaSalle looked at different ways the building could be spun off. The cheapest route would be to turn it into dormitory space ($103.9 million), but the lack of demand killed that plan. Other options included turning it into: a hotel ($116.1 million); rentals/condos ($109.3 million); senior housing ($120 million); and educational space ($109.3 million).
In the end, office space won the recommendation. The Jones Lang LaSalle report predicts a developer could tap into TIF funds, and a private developer could use Historical Tax Credits to pay for 20 percent of the rehab costs.
Preservationists are cheering the hospital’s new lease on life.
“I think it’s a very thoughtful study, and I’m glad they’re moving forward,” says Jim Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois, which studied reuse of the hospital in 2003. It found the building could be rehabbed for $85 million. Given inflation costs, that’s about equal to the JLLA findings.
The hospital, Peters say, “has great bones to it. Structurally, all the analysis that was done five years ago shows there’s nothing wrong with it structurally.”
While much work will need to be done inside the building, that’s of little concern to Peters.
“Really the most significant part for preservation is the outside. The inside just becomes a big floor plan that has lots of different uses for it,” he says. “You don’t want to throw this away; this is a sturdy building and can be adapted. The thing was built. This was a major public building. This wasn’t a temporary structure. This was designed to last for the ages.”
Should the plans be approved, it will be a welcome change of venue for health system administration workers, whose current quarters are housed in what is essentially a former dormitory.
Health system spokesman Lucio Guerrero says some of the offices have sinks in them. He said the health system had no hand in the discussions to rehab County Hospital.