Terrazzo Brings Life to Hospital Restoration: Part Two

Terrazzo Brings Life to Hospital Restoration: Part Two

Cook County Hospital holds a significant place in Chicago’s history. Considered in the early 1900s as one of the premier teaching hospitals in the world, the building saw many thousands of patients and held a central place in community medicine until its closure in 2002. Designed by famed Chicago architect Paul Gerhardt, the original building has a distinct silhouette in the city and once boasted beautiful terrazzo flooring.

After years of sitting vacant and slowly falling apart, a $140 million development plan between Murphy Development and Walsh Construction is bringing the building back to life. The main building will be repurposed as a high-end hotel, with offices for the new Cook County Hospital and community-focused development also planned.

First opened in 1857, the hospital still holds a special place for many Chicago residents. Once known as Chicago’s Ellis Island, it was one of the few hospitals that offered aid to people from all nationalities and walks of life during a time when de facto segregation kept many out of the city’s hospitals. The hospital only narrowly escaped being razed after its replacement, the John Stroger Hospital, opened in the early 2000s, and remained vacant until redevelopment plans came to fruition this year. Developer John Murphy made a natural fit for the project, coming off similar work on other Chicago landmarks like the Art Deco Chicago Motor Club and the office portion of the James M. Nederlander Theatre.  Beyond those credentials, the hospital also holds a more personal place—Murphy’s uncle was once a surgeon there prior to the closing.

The partnership’s primary aim has been to bring the property back to life as it once stood. Restoration efforts have centered around recreating the building’s past beauty, from the terracotta edifice to the repair and restoration of the original terrazzo flooring.  The terrazzo, still a staple in many hospitals due to its antimicrobial and easy-to-clean surface, is a major component in the look of the old building.

“Terrazzo’s been used in flooring for buildings in the US for many decades,” said Delph Gustitus, Principal of Chicago-based BTL Architects, Inc. and a specialist in historical preservation.  “It is a beautiful and durable product.  Many times in our work in historic buildings, we find old historic terrazzo floors under new flooring materials. It’s very satisfying and exciting to uncover an old, beautifully designed terrazzo floor that is in pretty good condition. When they have not been cared for, cleaned, or maintained well, they can look dirty and dated, and unattractive, which is likely why they are frequently covered over with newer flooring materials.  However, one of the enticing features of terrazzo from our experience is that, unless there is staining in the terrazzo from oils or other similar contaminants leaching into it, most surface stains and glues can be removed. It can be readily cleaned up and refinished to restore its original appearance.”

Terrazzo restoration is no simple job, of course; patching repairs can require deep research, with geologists sometimes called in to match original components used for aggregates.  The goal is always to make any patch work disappear into the overall field of the original flooring for a seamless appearance – something NCTA contractors have long specialized in.

“The biggest difficulty is that oftentimes, especially as other flooring materials have been put over it, you don’t really know the condition of the terrazzo underneath that,” Gustitus said. “Sometimes they glue down tile over terrazzo to try to freshen up the look, and that leaves behind glue stains that can be difficult to get off. Until you really dive into it, there are a lot of unknowns as far as the quality of the finished product, and how much you have to replace.”

The final product is something as striking as the freshly-sealed terrazzo floor itself: a glimpse into the building’s storied past.

“The real beauty of terrazzo to me is the appearance of the designs that can be cast into the floors,” Gustitus said.  “Some designs are very intricate and detailed.  It is a very versatile material in terms of being able to install an almost unlimited variety of designs.”


Did you miss our previous blog about the Cook County Hospital restoration? View the blog here