Op-Ed: Google, save our Sbarro! Thompson Center’s food court sums up what’s great about this public space

“Think Illinois politics is weird? Last Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker urged tech giant Google before a packed crowd at the live recording of the talk show ‘Good Evening with Pat Whalen’ at the Promontory to save the Thompson Center’s … Sbarro.
“For context, we have to go back a month ago to when a small group of Thompson Center fans gathered in the building’s food court for lunch. The group of architects, historians and transit advocates had met there a few times before, and as a joke, we called ourselves ‘Sbarro Urbanists’ after our lunch venue of choice. Organizing the meetup on Twitter, we were charmed when @sbarro noticed and sent us some swag to distribute: socks, water bottles and yo-yos. But we were honestly surprised when the “event” was covered in the national press and then apparently reached the governor’s desk.
“Our platform is no joke: A Sbarro is a place where you can get an affordable and convenient lunch. At the Thompson Center food court, you can get that lunch — at Sbarro or a number of other fine vendors — in a safe, clean and architecturally spectacular space easily accessible by trains and buses. As a state building, the Thompson Center also provides free access to Wi-Fi and public restrooms, and you can stay as long as you want without being hassled. There’s no guarantee its private owner will offer this. State-owned public space is fundamentally different from a food hall or a Starbucks, and these differences matter most to the city’s most vulnerable.
“More than ever, Chicago needs Sbarro Urbanism.
“Whatever you think of the Thompson Center, its conception at a time when Illinois government saw its duty to the people as requiring a robust investment in public space made it a unique resource for the state and the city. Now that the building is being outfitted for Google, this investment in the public is what is under threat. As a preservationist, I am grateful that the Thompson Center will not be sent to a landfill and hopeful for its second iteration, but I am disturbed by the loss of public space.
“So, Google, please: Save our Sbarro Urbanism!

The Sbarro Urbanists Postmodern architecture enthusiasts pose for a photo by the relocated Thompson Center Sbarro to Chicago Union Station on September 23, 2022 before a Chicago Union Station tour. Photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers
“The Thompson Center will no longer be publicly owned, but here are some ways Google can help preserve it as a unique resource for the city.
“First, support nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. This nomination is already complete and under consideration by the National Park Service. All Google needs to do is tell the building’s current owner, Prime Group, not to object to the listing. Listing on the National Register is honorary. It provides a framework for understanding the building’s public value and signals a commitment by Google to preserve it.
“Second, support listing the building as a Chicago landmark. Landmark status is the best way to ensure the people of Chicago have a say in the building’s future. If the city uses the recent landmarking of Wrigley Field as a model, Google could retain broad flexibility to renovate and modernize the Thompson Center while still presiding over an irreplaceable part of the city’s cultural identity.
“When renovations do occur, Google should look to another historical Chicago interior for inspiration: the Rookery Building. Completed by Burnham & Root in 1888, the Rookery was renovated by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1905. Though the style of the interior changed, its quality and the attention to detail were maintained, while modernization kept the building commercially viable and helped ensure it was never demolished.
“Finally, and most importantly, Google can preserve Sbarro Urbanism by keeping the space in the Thompson Center free and open to the public.
“Can Big Tech be a trusted steward of private space for public use? Google has a chance here to show that it can. (Solomon, Chicago Tribune, 9/22/22)
“Jonathan Solomon is an architect and associate professor at the School of the Art Institute. He is partner with Elizabeth Blasius in the firm Preservation Futures and an author of the nomination of the Thompson Center to the National Register of Historic Places.”
The Thompson Center’s Sbarro Super Fans Held A Pizza Party To Save The Famed Building; Though the Sbarro Urbanists have a love for pizza and the building’s food court — which has long inspired a strange devotion; among Chicagoans — their main focus is on preserving the Thompson Center, Colin Boyle, Block Club Chicago, 8/19/22


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