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Inside the $1B restoration of the old Cook County Hospital, ‘a city unto itself’

The old Cook County Hospital’s grand, beaux-arts façade is mostly obscured by a white tarp-like covering these days as construction crews work at demolishing some of the old features of the historic building to make way for a hotel and office complex that county officials hope will transform the Illinois Medical District and Near West Side.

Efforts to restore the façade on the front of the building at 1835 W. Harrison St. started last fall. Once finished, it will be the extravagant face of a $1 billion plan to rebuild the 102-year-old building inside and out.

John Murphy, chair of the Murphy Development Group — which is one part of the Civic Health Development Group that was picked to redevelop the hospital — says the effort is on track to finish on time, by 2020, and they’re 70 percent through the demolition phase.

“What is old, and some view as ugly, is going to be restored to new,” Murphy said.

RELATED: Old Cook County Hospital on track to become next city landmark

Last week, the City’s Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards moved to give the building landmark status. A vote by the full council is scheduled for Wednesday.

Building gutted

In addition to the iconic north face of the building, scaffolding covers the front and east and west sides of the building and is being used by crews repairing and replacing masonry — mostly bricks and damaged terra cotta. Thousands of pieces require removal in order to fix years-worth of neglect, said Matt Beach, the development project manager. The terra cotta is being sent to a reproduction facility and then sent back to be reinstalled over the course of several months.

Inside, much of the building has been gutted, though its high ceilings remain. Some of the original floor detailing, in black and white tile, is now covered in grit and dirt, and water leaks through in some spots.

There are plans for a dining room and bar and lounge on the second floor, though the back of the building on that floor is almost completely exposed to the elements.

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Rebuild includes hotels, offices, museum

After a groundbreaking ceremony in June, construction workers have demolished chunks of the building, but are keeping some of its facets, like a marble staircase leading from the first floor to the second and intricate detailing in the ceiling. Though it’s no longer a medical training ground, the redevelopments coming to the old hospital are intended to preserve its history while also bringing jobs and development to the Near West Side.

When the redevelopment of the hospital is done, it’ll include a Hyatt House and a Hyatt Place hotel as well as medical offices and retail spaces. There’ll also be an on-site museum that “recognizes the past and history of what this great building represented to the medical community for more than 100 years,” Murphy said.

“The old building maintains its place as the epicenter of the medical district,” Murphy said. “I think that people embrace the history and what pioneering medical procedures were developed here around the turn of the century and going forward. Some of the most brilliant minds in medicine have gone through that building, were actively trained, did their residencies there and there is just a tremendous digest of stories from the past and we believe by preserving this we take with us a piece of Chicago’s history for the next 100 years going forward.”

There are about 100 workers there a day, spread throughout the massive building, Kenneth Johnston, a senior project manager with Walsh Group said. At the peak of the restoration process, 250 to 300 workers are expected to work on the building, Johnston said.

The south side of the old Cook County Hospital. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The multiphase development will also have residential developments to the south of the hospital. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle estimates that the total investment will be roughly $1 billion from “private sources,” she said, meaning no county dollars are going into the project.

It’ll also create about 900 jobs during the redevelopment process, from the construction phase to the end, a Preckwinkle spokeswoman said.

A hub of activity

The old hospital was a proving ground for surgeons and other medical professionals — the first medical internship and first blood bank in the country were started there and doctors there did some of the first surgical fixations of fractures.

Some of the surgical halls, some with their old seats rusted over or covered in graffiti, still remain in fairly good condition and will likely be repurposed in some way in hotel rooms. An old exam light — and a mummified cat — found in one of the halls likely won’t be.

Harry Richter III, chairman of the general surgery division at Cook County Health, is the third generation of Harry Richters to have worked at the hospital — his grandfather and father both trained there and the Harrison Street hospital is also where his parents met. He said it would’ve been “a crime to lose the building entirely” and he’s looking forward to it being “back online.”

“In its heyday, it was a city unto itself,” Richter said. “It was a city block and more with many buildings interconnected with this great tunnel system. It was a hub of social and business activity and I think you’ll still see a glimpse of that once it’s open.”

Preckwinkle called it “a transformative development for the West Side, for Chicago and the county.”

“It’s really important to save our architectural heritage, and Chicago is known for its diverse and stunning architecture so I wanted to try to do everything I could to save this building, both because of its historical significance and because its kind of beaux arts classic,” Preckwinkle said.

“We hope it’ll be a catalyst for further development around it and contribute to the transformation of the Near West Side,” Preckwinkle said.

A former operating theater in the old Cook County Hospital at 1835 W. Harrison St. under construction and renovation | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A former operating theater | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The old Cook County Hospital at 1835 W. Harrison St. under construction and renovation, Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 8, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chairs in the former operating theater | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The old Cook County Hospital at 1835 W. Harrison St. under construction and renovation, Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 8, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times