Chicago Reader: Starship Chicago II has landed: The tale of the Thompson Center, continued

“Here’s a question: How many elements can you strip from an iconic building before it loses its identity?

“Could you pull the clocks off State Street’s flagship Marshall Field Building? Slice the big Tiffany dome from the Chicago Cultural Center? Cut the X braces from the Hancock? How about tearing the Trump sign off Trump Tower?

“‘How many identifying elements can you take from a building before it loses its soul?’ was the core question posed at last week’s premier screening of Nathan Eddy’s latest documentary film, Starship Chicago II, at the Chicago Architecture Center.

“If you’ve passed the James R. Thompson Center this year, you’ve seen the barricades blocking the glassy front entrance and the signs: ‘Building Interior Closed for Renovation.’ You can’t miss the big orange crane out front, or the irony.

“Less than 40 years after its celebratory ribbon cutting, this unique postmodern structure, intended to be the most open and public of public buildings, is neither public nor open.

“At least it’s not closed for total demolition.

“The wrecking ball had been a real threat for years but especially since 2015, when Governor Bruce Rauner planted himself in the iconic atrium to announce that he was putting the Thompson Center (originally known as the State of Illinois Building) up for sale and couldn’t imagine that any buyer would let it stand.

“No sale happened under Rauner, but in the last days of 2021, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that a group led by developer Mike Reschke had won a bid to buy and redevelop the building in a plan that would keep the state as a one-third owner and partial occupant. Preservationists were relieved but curious as to how well this could work with the LaSalle Street corridor office vacancy rate—driven by the pandemic and the Internet—headed toward 25 percent.

“Then, last July—in a feat of real estate magic surprising even for Chicago—Pritzker revealed that Google will be the ultimate owner of the 1.2 million-square-foot Helmut Jahn-designed masterpiece, purchasing it from Reschke’s group after they complete a three-year renovation. Google will use the entire building as a new headquarters; the state of Illinois will be completely out.

“Fans of the building were mostly cheered by this news: Google has deep enough pockets to be a good steward if it wants to be, and its presence on struggling LaSalle Street might spark a badly needed turnaround there. But the bait-and-switch aspect of the two announcements hung over the deal like a whiff of something polite society would choose to ignore: What does it mean for the state to completely exit a building that—more than any other—had been designed to embody the interactive relationship between a democratic government and its citizens?

“Helmut Jahn’s firm, now headed by his son, Evan Jahn (who is interviewed in the film and attended the screening), is handling the redesign, which sounds optimal. But the public hasn’t seen any renderings since December 2021, before Google was in the picture, and what was released then was disturbing to anyone who wants the building to retain its trademark quirkiness. Those images showed a totally bleached out, innocuous exterior and atrium—as if someone had sucked the blood and life from Jahn’s noisy, witty, riotous, blue-and-salmon postmodern celebration of a building.

“When he first saw those early renderings, Eddy told me, this was what popped into his head: ‘We’ve saved a building, but we haven’t saved the Thompson Center.'” (Isaacs, Chicago Reader, 5/31/23)


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