A judge Thursday gave at least a temporary reprieve to old Prentice Women's Hospital by stopping the city from issuing a demolition permit to Northwestern University until it can be determined whether the process by which the building was denied landmark status was properly carried out.
Circuit Judge Neil Cohen said the public's interest would be harmed if the building came down before the merits of a lawsuit filed by preservationists were considered. The lawsuit says the Commission on Chicago Landmarks violated the city's landmarks ordinance when it rescinded its own vote on landmark status for old Prentice.
That unusual maneuver took place Nov. 1, when the commission first voted to give the Streeterville building preliminary landmark status, then revoked that status on the basis of an economic impact study by the city's Department of Housing and Economic Development.
The judge's order put a hold on the second vote, returning the building to its status "just before that second resolution." For the moment, that gives old Prentice, designed by Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, immunity from the wrecking ball.
"This is a decision to be happy about," said Michael Rachlis, a lawyer for a coalition of preservation groups. "It's a first step in protecting the building."
The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, called the commission's action "an unprecedented process with a predetermined outcome."
On the eve of the landmarks commission's vote, the Tribune published an opinion piece by Mayor Rahm Emanuel backing Northwestern's argument that the economic benefits of a new medical research building outweighed the architectural merit of Goldberg's structure.
Cohen, who set the next court date for Dec. 7, emphasized that he was not rendering judgment on the larger issue of whether proper procedure was followed but simply giving the court time to hear arguments from both sides.
At times, however, he seemed sympathetic to the preservationists' position, wondering out loud if the commission's voting the building up and down in the same session violated a governmental body's obligation to "transparency."
The judge also asked attorneys for the city if the public had an adequate opportunity to weigh in on the issue — given the commission's hurry-up meeting.
Emanuel dismissed that notion.
"This was an 18-month discussion as a city, and I understood when we made the decision that there would still be people not happy," said the mayor, who again cited the jobs and cutting-edge research that a new building could bring.
A spokesman for the city's Law Department expressed disappointment at Cohen's decision and said a motion to dismiss the complaint will be filed.
Also on Thursday, the Chicago Architectural Club and the Chicago Architecture Foundation unveiled winning designs in a contest to adapt old Prentice to a new purpose — a solution advocated by preservationists.