By Joshua Michael Demaree
When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our father did for us.”
—John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
Richard Nickel, Chicago’s legendary architectural preservationist, once famously said, “Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men. Nickel had spent much of his life documenting and preserving the buildings of Louis Sullivan. Tragically, while he was attempting to save pieces of Sullivan’s signature ornamentation from the partially demolished Chicago Stock Exchange, he was crushed to death when a staircase collapsed in 1972. Nickel was first and foremost a photographer who worked tirelessly to visually document many buildings that were demolished during the mid-century’s post-war architecture revamp, but he knew that architecture’s true power lies in its materiality. This is why he would risk his life, just to insure that even if the building was demolished, a part of it might live on.
While Chicago has lost many magnificent buildings over the years (what city hasn’t?), Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital is the city’s freshest wound. Prentice’s tower was posed on four intersecting Roman arches that supported a cantilevered quatrefoil that, like a concrete flower among a sea of glass and steel, remained something of stranger in a strange land in the Brutalist building’s Streeterville location. In 2011, the building, which was owned by Northwestern University, was vacated in preparation for a 2012 demolition. Over the next two years Chicago activists, critics, and artists led a long-shot fight to save the building.
After a failed attempt at landmark status and a letter in favor of demolition from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Northwestern University announced in March of 2013 that the permit to destroy the building had been approved. Since that time — now just over a year ago — the many people who fought to save the building and the city-at-large have stood witness to seeing it dismantled piece by piece, floor-by-floor. Just like the lost architecture of Louis Sullivan that Nickel gave his life to protect, soon nothing intact will exist of Goldberg’s infamous tower. Nothing, that is, except for three of its iconic elliptical windows, which were saved by Chicago-based artist Jeff Prokash.
Prokash — who is currently working towards an MFA in sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — first became interested in Goldberg while working at Furniture Revival, a restoration studio in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. In preparation for the Chicago Art Club’s retrospective of the architect, Bertrand Goldberg: Refections in 2011-12, Prokash helped restore some of Goldberg’s personal furniture. “They were artifacts that weren’t part of his practice but definitely influenced his designs,” he recalled, noting that he helped clean a sculpture made by Goldberg’s mother. The exhibition, which was curated from Goldberg’s archives that are housed within the museum, was one of several attempts the city made to sway public opinion of the architect’s importance to the city’s history and, in hope, to save Prentice.
For the next two years Prokash followed the ongoing battle between Northwestern and the city’s cultural elite. But when Northwestern’s demolition permit was approved most of the attention to save the building turned toward eulogizing it, taking the building and the battle for its preservation as already lost. Prokash, something of a modern day Richard Nickel, returned to Streeterville to document the demolition. Perhaps it was his chance to handle work that inspired Goldberg — few in the arts can deny the desire to touch artwork — and to understand its materiality not by vision but by hand. This distinction is perhaps what made Prokash able to see the entirety of Prentice in the individual pieces as they were taken away as rubble. Luckily for us, he had the idea to save what he could.
He first contacted representatives at Northwestern University to inquire about the fate of the windows. They were, however, no longer Northwestern’s to give away. It’s common practice when the landowner’s contract companies to destroy their buildings they are actually selling the physical materials of the building to that company. The company then sells off the debris as they see fit. This meant that Prentice — the physical building — now belonged to the Brandenburg Industrial Service Company. Prokash spent several feverish weeks attempting to set up the possibility of obtaining even one of the building’s iconic windows. He was told it would take an act of God to get one and admitted defeat. But, for reasons unknown, the company later contacted Prokash that there remained four intact windows.
This was the moment that some kind of life after the wrecking ball was possible for Prentice. The quote above is from John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which the nineteenth century critic of art and architecture lays out the most importance principles of architecture. It exemplifies the long held Western beliefs that while people, cultures, and societies are held slave to the time, buildings are something different. They are meant to stand! Few architects would consider the possible deaths that might befall the building they are designing. Death, however, is an inevitable part of most buildings’ lives. Nickel knew this and Prokash knows it, but Prentice Windows present the unique opportunity for Goldberg’s tower to find a second life.
Joshua Michael Demaree lives in Philadelphia where he works at an independent bookstore. He is both a licensed driver and a dedicated taxpayer.