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With rehab looming, a rush to see guts of old county hospital

hallway inside closed Cook County Hospital

Jordan Nicolette "walked miles of hallways framed by peeling paint" at the old Cook County Hospital. He expects more urban explorers to try to get in soon. | Jordan Nicolette photo

Shortly after it was shuttered 13 years ago, curiosity seekers began going over and under the fence erected around the old Cook County Hospital to have a look inside.

One such “urban explorer” expects uninvited visits to increase if a just-unveiled plan to rehab the building into retail, office, residential and hotel space is approved by the Cook County Board.

If it’s passed, construction on the vacant building could begin next year.

“There will probably be a rush of people who want to go see the building, even though it’s pretty secured up and has gotten more secure since I was there,” said Jordan Nicolette, a photographer who went under the fence in 2008 and found his way inside to photograph the historically significant century-old building.

He seemingly walked miles of hallways framed by peeling paint and poked his head into dozens of barren rooms. But there was barely a hint the place once housed the county’s poorest patients — until he wandered into one of two old operating theaters on an upper floor.

“It was the highlight,” recalled Nicolette, 34, who now lives in Los Angeles. “The curved stadium seating in there and these old these old flip down seats. It’s just a really cool space.”

 Gallery

It’s not clear yet how the operating theaters might be repurposed under the rehab plan, said county spokesman Frank Shuftan.

Bonnie McDonald, president of the nonprofit Landmarks Illinois, suggested a wide array of options, including an avant garde art gallery or a gathering space to show movies or hold lectures.

Would a bar be out of the question? “Not at all. Hey, we love bars in Chicago,” said McDonald, noting that an old prison in Pennsylvania was turned into a brewery.

McDonald said that along with restoring the historic facade of a building, the plan would likely call for preservation of at least one of the operating theaters.

An executive at MB Real Estate Services, the leading developer on the project, did not return a call about the project.

McDonald said she understands why urban explorers do what they do.

“These are fascinating places that have the authenticity that you don’t really see in many modern buildings,” McDonald said. “But they do so at their own risk. Hopefully they are doing everything to keep themselves safe. We do recognize that the owners of these buildings keep them closed to keep everyone safe.”

Nicolette said he, and other like-minded explorers, have the best intentions.

“A lot of people are pretty secretive with how they got into places because they don’t want graffiti or taggers or metal scrappers to come and ravage the place,” said Nicolette, who was happy to hear that plans to rehab the building were in the works. “We don’t want to add to the decline of the building.”

Their furtive missions occasionally spark cat-and-mouse games with police officers from the Cook County Health and Hospital System, who patrol the area.

Several urban explorers have posted their hospital exploration stories online, including one who bribed a cab driver to let him stick a ladder through the windows of his taxi that was later used to gain pre-dawn access to the building.

“I told him I had a very urgent painting gig to do with my uncle,” the explorer wrote.