St. Mary of Nazareth: Hospital of the Future

This is the first post in a series on Chicago’s Modern hospitals by guest author Nate Lielasus, AIA.

Chicago’s St. Mary of Nazareth doesn’t try to blend in. Known as “St. Mary of the Dust Buster,” it occupies an entire block in the West Side’s Ukrainian Village and is bounded by Division, Oakley, Leavitt and Thomas Streets. The bulging concrete bays and massive drooping air-intake vents give the look of giant organ bellows. At sixteen stories, it towers over the adjacent residential neighborhood including its famous neighbor, Louis Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Church.

The medical complex was constructed in 1975 to replace an earlier hospital, a six-story brick structure on the southeast corner of the site designed by Chicago architect Henry Schlacks and completed in 1902 (now demolished).  The bold new concrete building was celebrated the moment it was completed.  In April, 1976, Inland Architect published an issue on modern hospital design that featured St. Mary’s on the cover (and also contained an article on Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital).  The year after completion, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, visited the hospital with a delegation of dignitaries from Poland.

Architect E. Todd Wheeler (1906 – 1987)  designed the hospital in conjunction with Sheldon Schlegman of Perkins and Will. Wheeler was a hospital specialist, the former State Architect of Illinois, and the first planning director of the Medical Center Commission in Chicago. In his position as Commissioner, he helped plan the development of the city’s West Side Medical Center, now known as the Illinois Medical District.  He also was a visionary who rejected conventional hospital design in favor of what he called the “Hospital of the Future.” In the 1960s Wheeler developed many experimental designs: hospitals in massive tents, huge inverted pyramids, and even sub-marine facilities.  He proposed underground hospitals in abandoned quarries and hospitals with movable patient rooms.

St. Mary’s was designed to be forward looking and utilitarian.  Elements of the hospital indicate different functions, and the overall organization of the various components is driven by efficiency. The hospital is constructed almost entirely out of a buff-colored concrete with a smooth, board formed or grooved finish.  Curves and rounded forms express the fluid quality of the material.

The bulk of St. Mary’s is the eleven-story bed tower containing 485 patient rooms. The rooms are all single occupancy, a new approach in hospital design. Like Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital (1974-5), the bed tower is raised above the base and each floor has a perimeter of patient rooms around a central nursing station.  At St. Mary’s, the tower is lifted up on curved concrete piers located in each corner. The piers rise the full height of the tower and give the plan a pinwheel shape, with quarter round appendages at the corners.

Each side of the tower has five concrete bays interspersed with double vertical rows of dark windows and the curved backside of one of the immense piers. The bays protrude from the wall and contain private toilets for the patient rooms as well as duct chases and the tops rise above the roof-line to terminate with exhaust vents. The base of the tower is ringed with the huge drooping air-intake vents, each a story tall and many stacked two high.

In contrast to the verticality of the tower, the base is low with stratified layers, each wing serving a different function. On the lower floors horizontal bands of wall and dark ribbon window curve around corners, reminiscent of the Streamline Moderne style. The upper floor is usually set back and has concrete eaves curved upward in contrast to the air vents hanging down from the tower above.  An apse shaped wing with bulging bays and vertical bands of windows similar to the tower contains staff offices. Later additions include a heliport with sculptural spiral access ramp added to the northeast corner in 1986 and a bridge over Division which connects the hospital to a bland boxy annex.  More recently a new emergency room wing was constructed that follows the style established by Wheeler.

The lobby at the base of the tower has a clear glass curtain wall to the street and the ceiling ninety feet up is the underside of the giant concrete vents.  The third floor off the atrium contains a fantastic Brutalist chapel designed by local sculpture Lee Schillereff.  A soaring dalle de verre stained glass wall at the entrance, visible from the exterior, is several stories tall and extends to the underside of the bed tower. The chapel ceiling has a geometric pattern of lines that were cast into the concrete while the walls have a band of flowing lines representing the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked to his crucifixion. Schillereff scored the lines into the fresh concrete to connect the Stations of the Cross. As opposed to the traditional 14th Station showing Jesus laid in the tomb, Schillereff sculpted Christ Rising, located high on the wall where the band of lines terminates at the ceiling.  Schillereff also designed the altar which is supported by a bronze tree trunk.

The program for St. Mary’s was focused on efficiency and utilitarianism without sentiment for historic styles or forms.  Wheeler’s organization and expression of the different parts met the needs of the hospital while also creating a retro-futuristic fantasy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2 Responses to “St. Mary of Nazareth: Hospital of the Future”
  1. William Tyre says:

    Terrific article on St. Mary’s. I spent many hours there during my Dad’s extended hospital stay and often pondered the architecture and design. I especially enjoyed the beauty of the chapel space and appreciate the information on its design and meaning. A great blog that I’ll be following regularly. Keep up the good work!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] not only time to start celebrating mid-century architects like Bertrand Goldberg, Edward Dart and E. Todd Wheeler.  It’s time to start really worrying about the future of their surviving work.  Conventional […]

  • Contact Us

    Email Chris Enck with docomomo_chicago-midwest at or post comments at
%d bloggers like this: