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

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Chicago is famous for its modern architecture. Incorporated in 1837 and destroyed by fire in 1871, the city was a clean slate on which architects could invent the new. The first skyscrapers went up in Chicago. From his studio on the city's outskirts, Frank Lloyd Wright revolutionized the American home. Later, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a refugee from Nazi Germany, built the spare, glass-and-steel structures that made Chicago a center of modernism.

Kevin Harrington, a professor of art and architectural history at IIT and coauthor of "Chicago's Famous Buildings," says the city's architecture stands out not only for its compressed history but also for its richness and stylistic continuity. "People from all over the world recognize it," he says. "It's kind of a coherence of form and material and vocabulary."

Until recently, Gropius was thought to have played only a minor part in this history. The omission was significant. Together with Mies van der Rohe and the French architect Le Corbusier, Gropius is considered one of the pioneers of modernism, the style that transformed architecture in the middle of the 20th century. He founded the Bauhaus school in Germany after World War I, left the country in the 1930s, and later taught at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Beginning in the mid-1940s he drew up a master plan to enlarge Reese Hospital, which local architects filled in with individual buildings. At least that's what everyone thought.

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