Peter Callaghan: St. Joseph: It’s time to show our concrete icon some love

Staff WriterNovember 21, 2013 

I wasn’t familiar with Prentice Hospital. I’d not heard of an architect named Bertrand Goldberg.

But a historic preservation battle that ended badly last month in Chicago involving a building designed by Goldberg has special significance here at the other end of the old Northern Pacific tracks. Prentice, a former women’s hospital, is a sister to Tacoma’s St. Joseph Medical Center.

The demolition of that building in Goldberg’s hometown leaves St. Joseph’s iconic tower one of just a few remaining hospitals based on his innovations. The others are in Phoenix, Boston and Mobile, Ala. And while the love-it-or-hate-it hospital that towers over downtown from the edge of Hilltop isn’t threatened, it is time to ensure that it remains.

Consider it our penance for allowing the demolition of another work of Chicago architectural legends from a different era — Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root’s Luzon Building, which the city of Tacoma tore down in 2009.

When the Sisters of St. Francis began looking for architects in the late 1960s, Goldberg was in the midst of designing hospitals based on his innovations. The building takes its cloverleaf shape not as an architectural affectation but to accommodate a new relationship between nursing staff and patients.

“Within each quadrant were patient ‘villages’ of 10 beds each, clustered around a nursing station,” is how St. Joseph was described on “The village system ensured that no nurse would be out of a 5-foot reach of any patient. There were four villages on each floor.”

In “A Beacon of Light,” a history of the hospital written at its centennial in 1991, Nancy Rockafellar wrote that Goldberg “regarded the hospital as a ‘set of social and functional relationships’ and argued that hospital architecture must foster relationships among people.”

That said, the 39-year-old building itself is a stunning example of modern architecture, described as brutalist or neoexpressionist.

“They’re a type of building that doesn’t have a lot of fans in the general public because they’re hard to understand,” said Jean Follet, who was in the middle of Save Prentice effort as interim director of Landmarks Illinois, a preservation advocacy group.

“It’s hard to love concrete,” she said.

The lack of public affection made it easier for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to stack the landmarks commission and reverse a decision to protect the building, clearing the way for Northwestern University to tear it down. In a column lamenting the demolition, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne compared it to the pending demolition of the space-age Houston Astrodome.

“What is it about late-modern designs that has left them so vulnerable in recent years?” Hawthorne wrote. “In part it’s simple arithmetic. Works of architecture tend to fall out of fashion beginning around 25 and hit their deepest levels of disfavor between 40 and 50 years old.”

He proposed proactive advocacy, “getting out ahead of the curve of taste and educating the public about precisely the architectural movements they find most deeply unfashionable.”

Which brings us back to the still-standing and still quite functional St. Joseph hospital tower. The administration remains fond of it. But in the hyper-competitive medical world, the landscape changes quickly, and issues such as architecture and culture can quickly take a back seat to other agendas. Once that happens, resistance is futile.

Though still short of the 50-year standard age for protected landmark status, it is about time for folks around here to begin to reconsider their attitudes toward this building and other examples of post-World War II architecture. Washington’s office of historic preservation launched an effort in 2003 called Nifty From The Last 50 to draw attention to the state’s modern architecture. So far 300, including St. Joseph, have been surveyed and included in its database.

Still, only a handful of these buildings have been placed on state and national historic registers. That needs to change before they are lost.

“When we think about the buildings that are closer in age to us, I remind people that in 1966, Art Deco and Craftsman weren’t 50 years old either,” said state historic preservation officer Allyson Brooks. “They were being demolished left and right.”

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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