“After a decade-long effort by Chicago’s preservation community, the James R. Thompson Center, a government-owned 1985 structure designed by the late German-born architect Helmut Jahn, appears to have secured new life. In December of 2021, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced that the state had agreed to sell the building for $70 million to developer The Prime Group, which intends to preserve it.
Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago both included it multiple times on their “most endangered” lists, and the National Trust named it to its 2019 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Originally dubbed the State of Illinois Center, the curved building was meant to serve, essentially, as the Prairie State’s second capitol, and it was quite the architectural feat for its time.
“‘The building is just quintessential Postmodern [architecture] at its best,’ says Landmarks Illinois Director of Advocacy Lisa DiChiera. It was also noted for its airy, 17-story atrium and outdoor plaza. Jahn rose to international stardom afterwards, but his signature Chicago work hasn’t always been well received by the press or the people working inside, who often struggle to adjust to temperatures that are either too hot or too cold.
But its supporters view the structure as a work of art. ‘Even if it isn’t your favorite,’ says Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, ‘you have to admit it’s unique, special, and rare.’ Although the renderings by Jahn’s firm of the revamped building are only preliminary, it looks as if many of the most prominent architectural features will remain intact, alongside new features (including glazing on the windows that should address the heating and cooling issues).