Former Cook County Hospital in Chicago gets new chapter

After being unoccupied for 18 years, Chicago’s Cook County Hospital was set to be demolished. Built in 1914, and once North America’s largest public health facility, the venerable facility had a reputation for welcoming patients of all backgrounds, as well as for having the best resident physicians.

Despite being so highly regarded and well known, the hospital’s future remained undecided—even in 2006, when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. After a modern facility was built nearby and Cook County Hospital’s teaching hospital relocated to it, the original building was simply left to deteriorate.

Located near I-290 and Ogden Avenue in Chicago’s medical district meant that locals could not/would not forget this historic beauty, especially watching it painfully morph into eyesore status. Razing the legendary hospital seemed to be 100% inevitable.

But thanks to ultra-strong efforts by Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois, the Cook County Board of Commissioners’ plan to demolish the historic hospital was overturned. In 2016, it was announced that the hospital would be rehabilitated as part of a colossal, $1 billion redevelopment plan called Harrison Square. A fraction of that—$140 million—would go toward the complete renovation and adaptive reuse of the hospital, including $18 million for the restoration of its brick and terra cotta exterior facade.

A project team including Walsh Construction; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Wiss, Janney, Elstner (WJE) Associates was assembled, the latter serving as the exterior envelope consultant for this massive restoration. In 2018, ground broke to transform the 342,000-square-foot complex into two Hyatt hotels with 210 rooms, in addition to medical offices, a museum, a daycare center, a gym and a food court.

When Rachel Will, Associate Principal at WJE, arrived at the site for her team’s first survey, she immediately acknowledged the challenges. “When it was vacant and boarded up, there were actually inhabitants in the building. When we did our first survey, that was one of the concerns. Everyone was reading for years about this building, to see what its fate was going to be. In Chicago, just about everybody knew it. There were a lot of thoughts relative to what should be done—and how it should be done. It clearly was a unique challenge.”

Once the masonry contractors were selected, Will and her team started on some trials and mockups to realistically understand what products could best clean atmospheric stains, biological growth and efflorescence off the facade. This was absolutely necessary. “There was significant efflorescence at the base of the building because below the third floor, there was an inlaid gutter that for years hadn’t been functioning correctly and thus, caused quite a bit of water in the wall,” Will says.

Working with two different masonry contractors (Mark 1 Restoration for the north, east and wide sides, and MBB Enterprises on the south side), the group determined that cleaning would be the first step... and they established a positive path forward. To meet their collective needs, the architect and contractors insisted upon PROSOCO, a company that for 80-plus years has crusaded to ensure buildings look better and last longer with their specialty construction chemicals.

Jake Boyer, PROSOCO’s Clean & Protect Group Leader, says it does whatever it can to solve its customers' problems through endless testing, research and development. "We’re grateful that we were able to aid in the amazing restoration of the Old Cook County Hospital. Each restoration project is different, and therefore will require a customized set of test panels and restoration solutions. That’s something that at PROSOCO, we pride ourselves in: The ability to provide customized solutions for all types of building conditions, substrates and stains.”

The PROSOCO team had the two-part chemical system from PROSOCO (766 Limestone & MasonryPrewash and Limestone & Masonry Afterwash) as their initial choice, in which they used at least two passes of the prewash. “Some areas that were significantly soiled needed multiple passes of the prewash, and it cleaned up very nicely,” Will says.

But instead of neutralizing with the after wash component of the two-party system, Will and her colleagues found that a different product worked even better. “We knew the brick had been severely cleaned in the past, so it was very absorbent. To be able to neutralize it, we ended up using PROSOCO’s Light Duty Concrete Cleaner.”

Once all eight stories and all four sides of the exterior were cleaned between the years 2018 and 2019, the next step was envelope stabilization—another unique restoration challenge for WJE. “The building had been vacant for 18 years, but even prior to that, there had been quite a bit of deferred maintenance,” Will says. “A lot of temporary stabilization measures had been put in place just to keep pieces from falling.”

Will says some of those measures were taken down and rebuilt, including the third-floor gutter and significant strapping that had been installed around corners, balconies and projected areas. “At that point, our contractors installed anchoring for further stabilization using PROSOCO’s helical Stitch-Ties and Masonry Veneer-Ties to pin the terra cotta and some of the brick.”

After an intense, but highly gratifying three years of renovations, the structure reopened in 2020, repurposed as the Hyatt Place and its extended-stay neighbor, the Hyatt House—together forming the centerpiece of a much larger complex, expected to revitalize an entire district.

The emergence of a local historic landmark being salvaged and retrofitted for a new life offered great significance for a public that had been watching this once-beautiful structure waste away for years. And for Will, that meaning was acutely experienced. A resident of Chicago since 2005, she says it had been vacant the entire time she lived there.

“Being involved with it and seeing it get a new life was just amazing,” she says. “Truly from the standpoint of adaptive reuse and façade projects, it’s such a transformation. This building was near death in a lot of ways, and now, it’s not just a hotel, but office workers go to the building every day. Many people can experience this building.”

Will says that it was a dream to work on a building she actually studied in grad school. “It’s one of those buildings you learn about in class, and then to get the opportunity to work on it, it’s more personal. Then you’re part of the story. This was the next chapter in this building’s life and we’re not going to be the first or last to touch it. Let’s just be part of it.”

Darcy Boyle has worked as the media and communications director for PROSOCO for 8 years, honing her craft as a storyteller, copywriter and PR specialist in construction.


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