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

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To Balkany's eye, the buildings suggested a deeper involvement. His research uncovered letters and drawings revealing that Gropius had in fact closely supervised the design of at least eight of the buildings, in some cases prescribing details down to the color of the paint.

"I thought, 'My gosh, Gropius's fingerprints are all over this,' " Balkany says.

But while he was busy attaching Gropius's name to the buildings, the city was laying plans to raze them. Officials want the 37-acre campus of Reese Hospital, which went bankrupt last September, to build an Olympic village for the 2016 Games, for which Chicago is a finalist. Even if Chicago doesn't win the Games, officials envision a new residential development that they say will help invigorate the South Side.

The decision to demolish has angered preservationists in part because it came with little or no public debate. But Robert Bruegmann, an architectural historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the controversy reflects a larger struggle over the fate of modern architecture. "There's an emotional tug of war over buildings of this time that has been playing out nationally," he says.

Part of the issue is timing. By convention buildings have rarely been considered for historic preservation until they are at least 50 years old. Buildings from the middle of the 20th century have only recently reached that age. Indeed, until Balkany linked the hospital buildings to Walter Gropius, few paid them much attention.

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