Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has transformed the historical Beaux-Arts-style Cook County Hospital building, Chicago, Illinois, through preservation, restoration, and adaptation to meet the changing needs of its neighborhood.
Completed in 1914, the hospital building is a designated Chicago landmark and once stood as the symbolic heart of the Illinois Medical District healthcare community. Vacant since 2002, the building had fallen into a severe state of disrepair and was threatened with demolition. Instead, SOM led a design-build collaboration for general contractor Walsh Construction, with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, and interior designers KOO, to revitalize the former hospital building. With a new hotel, food hall, medical offices, and community spaces, the historic hospital building is the first phase of a proposed $1-billion redevelopment plan for the area.
Cook County Hospital is not only a monumental example of the neoclassical Beaux-Arts style, but also has an illustrious history: many medical advances took place here, including the development of the first blood bank in the United States. The hospital was long known as “Chicago’s Ellis Island” for its devoted treatment of poor communities and immigrants. A museum space in the newly restored building will showcase the important role the hospital played for the city and in the field of medicine.
When the rehabilitation project began in 2018, deferred maintenance, exposure to the elements, and vandalism had caused severe deterioration to the exterior and interior of the building. The restoration work focused first on repairing the neoclassical-style exterior, which involved replacing more than 4500 pieces of terra cotta on the façade.
A sliver-thin canopy of steel and glass marks the entrance to the building, replacing a former bulky addition that diminished the integrity of the historic façade. Inside, SOM restored the lobby to its original height of 8 m (25 ft). Original red terrazzo flooring and ornate Beaux-Arts molding immediately evoke the building’s original grandeur, while carefully selected contemporary artwork, lighting, and finishes signal a new chapter in the building’s history.
A food hall just to the left of the lobby provides a bright and engaging space in which to relax and recharge; its 12 local vendors are primarily women- or minority-owned businesses. Further amenity spaces include an expansive bar and lounge spaces with views through restored wood-framed windows.
“We did not just want to preserve the old Cook County Hospital—we wanted to bring it back to its former glory, from the façade to the original Beaux-Arts masonry detailing and terra cotta ornamentation,” said Brian Lee, SOM consulting design partner. “The restored historic volume and finishes in the main lobby bring the original grand entrance back to life, establishing a new entrypoint for the community.”
SOM and KOO took advantage of the building’s relatively thin footprint to configure 210 hotel rooms filled with natural light. With unique layouts and contemporary art and decor, the rooms provide a variety of spaces and views. Some of the more unusual spaces within the former hospital, including lofty operating rooms with bands of windows on the eighth floor, were transformed into distinctive guest rooms.
The first of several phases, the Cook County Hospital redevelopment energizes the district by reestablishing the building as the keystone for a vibrant, mixed-use, transit-focused development. The multi-use redevelopment revitalizes the surrounding Illinois Medical District and provides much needed amenities to support the requirements of medical district workers, patients, and their families.
The renovation of the Cook County Hospital has earned the project a 2020 Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Adaptive Reuse.