Mercy Hospital 1968: A Prescription for Reinvestment on Chicago’s Near South Side

22 Aug

Mercy Hospital’s west facade. Photo by author

It was a fiery stroke of bad luck, and on Friday the 13th too, that really gave wings to the campaign to build a new Chicago Mercy Hospital.

New Mercy goes up, Old Mercy comes down – mid 1960s. Photo from Mercy Hospital

On Friday, September 13th, 1963, a blaze broke out on the top floor of the east wing of Chicago’s old Mercy Hospital at 26th and Prairie Avenue, about three miles south of the downtown Loop.  All patients and staff quickly evacuated and no one was hurt. Only days later the hospital was open again, albeit needing some serious cleaning and only offering limited services.  This time, though, there would be no renovation of the ninety-six year old hospital structure.  Fundraising efforts to rebuild the hospital were already underway and only two days after the east wing fire, hospital administrators announced in the Chicago Tribune their plans to demolish the old brick Mercy.

Old Mercy Hospital in 1910. Photo from Chicago Daily News Photos

Founded by Catholic Sisters of Mercy, this institution of healing received its charter from the State of Illinois in 1851 and the next year began administering medical care in a former boarding house in downtown Chicago.  In 1864, Mercy moved to a sprawling 20-acre site on Chicago’s South Side, remote enough a location to avoid the devastation wrought by the 1871 Chicago Fire.  From 1869 to 1917, Mercy expanded six times, growing to fill nearly an entire city block and becoming one of Chicago’s leading twentieth-century teaching hospitals and an important source of medical care to Chicago’s needy.

Plans to replace old Mercy with a new facility had already been in the works for a decade when fire broke out there in September 1963.  The hospital had earlier mulled over a move to the suburbs but resolved instead to remain and demolish its turn-of-the-century facility.  In old Mercy’s place, officials planned to construct a completely new facility, a modern medical center complex to be designed by the local firm of C.F. Murphy & Associates, well-known for their work at Chicago’s One Prudential Plaza (completed 1955) and for their long-anticipated Civic Center (now the Daley Center, completed 1965).

C.F. Murphy & Associates’ 1964 scale model of the new Mercy Hospital complex. Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune

C.F. Murphy & Associates’ medical campus envisioned five low-rise structures – two identical six-story apartment buildings for nurses and interns, a five-story nursing home facility, and two four-story research facilities – all in the shadow of a concrete-frame twelve-story patient tower with enough room for 500 beds.  Finally released from the inefficient hodge-podge of Old Mercy’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings, the nurses and doctors of new Mercy would find a hospital designed with their needs in mind.  The new hospital would house a vertical conveyor system to aid in food, housekeeping, and medical supply distribution.  In the main medical building, outpatient care, operating suites, emergency rooms, and physical therapy spaces were kept on the main floor while patient rooms were lifted up into the tower, giving overnight patients peace and quiet, not to mention spectacular views of downtown to the north and Lake Michigan to the east.

A 1964 rendering of New Mercy Hospital. Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Staff and patients were not the only ones excited by the prospect of a new facility.  The new Mercy project, planned for the site of demolished neighborhood “blight,” was looked on favorably by city officials who saw not only a chance to improve local medical care but also the possibility to completely reinvent the physical and economic landscape of Chicago’s languishing Near South Side.  A new Mercy Hospital complex was intended to be only one of many neighborhood urban renewal projects and was hoped to become a focus of a reinvigorated inner city community.

Fundraising for C.F. Murphy’s new $24 million Mercy Hospital kicked off in earnest on November 9, 1963 at a glittering black-tie dinner held nearby at architect Alfred P. Shaw’s new McCormick Place Convention Center (completed in 1960, burned in 1967).  By 1965, enough money was raised to begin demolition of old Mercy and several surrounding neighborhood blocks and to begin the groundwork for the new complex.  In early 1968, after nearly three years of construction, patients were finally transferred from old Mercy into the new facility. Demolition of the old hospital was completed later that year.

Old Mercy (in the foreground), not long for this world, with its successor going up behind it. Photo from Chicago: City of Neighborhoods

Though new Mercy’s footprint has changed over its thirty-five year life, the centerpiece of the complex remains the twelve-story central patient treatment facility.

Mercy Hospital’s east facade. Photo by author

The tower’s two-story podium houses the hospital’s emergency services, accessed by a colonnaded entrance facing west, and the main visitor entrance pavilion facing east.  Perched above the visitor’s entrance on the second floor is the hospital’s original chapel (now closed for renovation), and cafeteria, its large windows looking east out onto an expansive parking lot, once the site of the Mercy’s Victorian era predecessor.

Mercy Hospital west emergency room entrance. Photo by author

In the tower above, Mercy’s patient bedrooms with their sweeping city views are set back within an exposed concrete frame. The colonnades of spindly white concrete columns hoist up the twelfth-floor penthouse which expands out beyond the footprint of the building like an abstracted and oversized classical cornice.

The underside of Mercy’s cantilevering twelfth floor. Photo by author

Inspiration for Mercy Hospital tower’s columns, modified groin/fan vaulting, and cantilevering twelfth-floor were most likely drawn from two notable American designs from the early 1960s:  architects Belt, Lemmon & Lo’s designs for the Hawaii State Capitol (designed in 1960 but not completed until 1969)…

Belt, Lemmon & Lo’s Hawaii State Capitol (completed 1969). Photo from Historic American Building Survey

… and Edward Durell Stone’s State Quad at SUNY Albany (1962).

Edward Durell Stone’s SUNY Albany campus (completed 1962). Photo from Wikipedia

Of Mercy’s planned outbuildings, only the 1964 intern resident apartment building survives.  This miniature-scale version of Mercy’s main tower gives us a glimpse at the scale of C.F. Murphy’s original complex design.

Mercy’s surviving intern residences (1964) just east of the main complex. Photo by author

Its twin to the north, an identical nurses’ apartment building, was slated to be built where the Stevenson Interstate-55 Expressway now runs just north of the complex (see the image of C.F. Murphy’s scale model above).  As the Stevenson was also in planning stages in the early 1960s, it is improbable that work on the nurses’ building ever broke ground.  The south intern apartment building, however, was completed as planned and sits intact on its original site just beyond the hospital’s east parking lot. This six-story structure, completed at the very beginning of construction on the rest of the complex, mimics its Mercy Hospital tower neighbor with its glass-enclosed flats suspended within a free-floating concrete exterior structure.

Expecting to build on the success of the nearby Michael Reese Hospital-Prairie Shores redevelopment district, the City of Chicago had ambitious plans for Mercy Hospital as a catalyst for rapid neighborhood growth.  The plans of civic planners did bear some fruit in the late 1960s.  Just south of Mercy, the South Commons redevelopment project, an ensemble of new high-rise and low-residential, education, and shopping facilities designed by Solomon-Cordwell and Gordon-Levin, was inaugurated shortly before the completion of the hospital complex.

A view of Mercy Hospital from the north with the South Commons development beyond. Photo by author

Despite its best intentions, the City of Chicago’s ambitious plan for Near South Side renewal came up short in returning the community to the level of vitality it hoped for.  Though Mercy was expected to spur a neighborhood building boom in the 1960s, the hospital’s twelve-story tower overlooks still-empty vacant lots cleared during Chicago’s urban renewal years.  Prairie Shores and South Commons remain attractive to residential buyers though the closure of Michael Reese Hospital in 2008 (and its subsequent 2010-2011 demolition) removed a major employer and life force from the neighborhood. With increasing focus on the return of South Loop as a vital commercial and residential neighborhood, it is yet to be seen how critical Mercy Hospital’s role will be in the Near South Side’s continuing revitalization.

Mercy Hospital’s east entrance pavilion. Photo by author


One Response to “Mercy Hospital 1968: A Prescription for Reinvestment on Chicago’s Near South Side”

  1. Jim Peters November 15, 2012 at 10:32 am #

    Great research and post. Pretty amazing complex, but will we have learned from the lessons of Michael Reese and Prentice by the time this one is threatened?

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