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Battle to save Chicago's Gropius architecture has preservationists and city at odds

Marked for demolition, the modernist buildings sit on a site pegged for the 2016 Olympics.

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Grahm Balkany's mood lurches from admiration to anguish as he strolls among a group of small, flat-roofed hospital buildings on Chicago's South Side.

"Look how progressive that is," he exclaims, pointing to where slatted awnings filter sunlight that falls on patients' rooms. A moment later, he gazes mournfully on scattered trash, uncut grass, and other signs of neglect. "I can't tell you how beautiful this was at one point," he says.

Recently, while studying engineering and architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Mr. Balkany discovered that one of the great minds of modern architecture, Walter Gropius, lay behind many of these buildings, built in the 1950s and early '60s in a great gust of urban renewal on the South Side. But what began as a triumph for scholarship and Chicago's architectural history has quickly soured. The city intends to tear down at least 28 buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital campus, including those linked to Gropius, to make room for the 2016 Olympics. Architectural preservationists have so far protested in vain.

"There's no question that Walter Gropius was instrumental in the overall master planning of the campus and in designing many of the buildings," says Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago, a group that tries to bring attention to important buildings that are imperiled. "On that basis alone, at least the buildings he designed should be preserved."

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