THREATENED: James R. Thompson Center / State of Illinois Building

Address: 100 W. Randolph Street
Architects: C.F. Murphy, Murphy/Jahn, Helmut Jahn
Date: 1985
Style: Postmodern / Deconstructivist
Neighborhood: Loop

LINK TO FULL TEXT including overview, history, threat, recommendations and a gallery of photos

Preservation Chicago has selected the James R. Thompson Center/State of Illinois Building, for a fourth year, to our Chicago’s 7 Most Endangered List. The Thompson Center is an iconic and integral component to Chicago’s downtown and its municipal core. The building is noted for its prominent curvilinear corner and polychromed exterior facades, its many public spaces, open plazas and arcades, its voluminous 17-story interior atrium, its concourse-level food halls, pedway, CTA transit center and public art.

The potential sale and deaccession of a public governmental building, determined by elected officials to be too expensive to repair, is cause for great concern. The potential loss or destruction of the Thompson Center would also be a huge embarrassment to both the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois, as this building is well documented, published and recognized as an architectural landmark in many architectural circles. Designed by Helmut Jahn, an architect of great note on the world’s stage, the potential loss of this building would be tremendous, ranking among the many notable structures which Chicago has allowed to be wantonly demolished. Many of the demolished buildings were great works of art and architecture lost forever and among Chicago’s most regrettable missteps of the past.

Jahn’s extensive commissions extend from his Chicago-based office to buildings and projects around the world. These consist of mostly tall buildings from Chicago to Europe, Asia and beyond. The enormously successful and popular Sony Center in Berlin, Germany, opened in 2000, was modeled in part on Chicago’s Thompson Center. Both the Sony Center and the Thompson Center are among the few mid-rise structures by the firm and both are an integral part of Berlin’s and Chicago’s city centers.

The recent action to appoint an adviser for the imminent sale of this one-of-a-kind structure, following Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s signature on SB 886 to sell the building allows the process to proceed forward. This action brings great concerns for the building’s future, which at this time in unclear. However, former Governor Rauner had publicly discussed demolition, and to date there has not been a published sales listing for the Thompson Center to outline any requirements of the sale. Once again, we are compelled to spotlight the building in 2020.

Since its construction in 1985, the building’s design and engineering challenges of the vast 17-story atrium and adjoining public spaces and offices have been a contentious topic. However, no one can deny The Thompson Center is an iconic representation of Postmodern design by world-renowned architect Helmut Jahn, and the firm of C.F. Murphy-Murphy/Jahn.

The building’s architecture includes the transition between the flat plane and curvilinear-stepped glass curtain wall, along with the vertical plinth-like columned structures, which once held granite slabs and were designed to appear to continue outward from the building. These free-standing elements or structures are almost fragmentations, and a visual extension of the building line to the perimeters of the open plaza. Such ideas, as the building appearing to deconstruct or flay, are elements and features sometimes seen in the Postmodern Deconstructivist Movement. These features helped to define the plaza, with its T-shaped forms and members, attached to the cylindrical columns, along with portions of the stone on the LaSalle Street façade until removed in a past remodeling. The concept of this extension of the structure was popular with architects of the period, and this may indeed be one of the first examples of Deconstructivist architecture noted in a Chicago building.

Preservation Chicago encourages the City of Chicago to work with the Governor and the State of Illinois to consider a Chicago Landmark designation of this building, in order to protect its historically significant elements and overall design. While SB 886 authorizing the sale of the Thompson Center did not require any future purchaser to retain the historic Postmodern structure, it does ironically mandate that any future development on the property must bear in whole or in part the name of former Governor James R. Thompson.

The structure also serves as an important transit hub for the Chicago Transit Authority and connects essentially all of the rapid transit lines at one central location. Selling the Thompson Center appears to be short-sighted, and public assets like State-owned buildings should not be sold to the highest bidder by our elected officials.

It should not be overlooked that the Thompson Center Building is also part of an important governmental center in the heart of the Loop—Chicago’s central business district. Also, several of the buildings comprising this center are designated Chicago Landmarks. These buildings include Chicago City Hall—Cook County Building, the Richard J. Daley Center & Courthouse and the George Dunne Building/former Brunswick Building, which is the only structure not landmarked. However, even that structure by Myron Goldsmith (1918-1996) and Skidmore Owings & Merrill would fit Landmark criterion.

James R. Thompson Center /State of Illinois Building. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

Our 2020 call to action is twofold: first to the City of Chicago and then to the Illinois State Legislature in Springfield and the Governor’s office.

Preservation Chicago urges the City of Chicago to move quickly to designate the Thompson Center/ State of Illinois Building as a Chicago Landmark. A Landmark Designation could protect this building, plaza and public sculpture ensuring that these will be retained in any redevelopment of the site.

Chicago Landmark designation requires a building to meet two of seven criteria. We believe the Thompson Center would meet exceed that minimum threshold for designation. These include:

  • Criteria 1: Value as an Example of City, State or National Heritage for “its value as an example of the architectural, cultural, economic, historic, social, or other aspect of the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois or the United States.”
  • Criteria 4: Exemplary Architecture for “its exemplification of an architectural type or style distinguished by innovation, rarity, uniqueness, or overall quality of design, detail, materials, or craftsmanship.”
  • Criteria 5: Significant Architect or Designer for “its identification as the work of an architect, designer, engineer, or builder whose individual work is significant in the history of development of the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, or the United States.” Criterion 5, would apply to Helmut Jahn and C.F. Murphy/Jahn, for a world-renowned architect and the firm’s exemplary work.

Jahn’s career began in Chicago and is now celebrated around the world. This is a building of the people, built as a monument and open to all, with many public spaces that should be forever open to all. Efforts to both protect its architecture and vision and activate the building should be implemented.

We remain hopeful that prevailing political opinions will work to retain the building as a State-owned facility for the people of Illinois. Alternative ideas could even consider the lease-back of office space to the State as part of a sale at a reduced rental rate, or for the State of Illinois to be a co-owner or stakeholder in a partnership that controls ownership of the building. Such funds derived from a partial sale of perhaps the commercial portions of the building could possibly help underwrite the necessary monies and funds to restore and repair the building.

Even if the building were to be sold to fill a portion of the budget and to address existing pension deficits, it would be a drop in the bucket toward that goal and a short-term drop at that. It would most likely take the equivalent to the sale of 500 Thompson Center buildings to balance the budget, so why continue to sell a historically significant State asset at all? The Illinois Governor’s Mansion and the Illinois State Capital Building have both been in various states of disrepair in recent years. These two buildings were restored using various funding sources, to the tune of millions of dollars, to take care of deferred maintenance issues that had built up over the years.

If it does go through with a sale, we call on the State of Illinois to prioritize preservation into its specifications for the proposed sale of the property. As residents of the state, we understand the financial pressures that our legislature is working to address. Utilizing revenues from the sale of the James R. Thompson Center would make a small dent in the unfunded pension deficit. We understand the State desires to sell the building, but it does not need to be demolished as a part of that sale? There are preservation-sensitive ways to offer developers the density they require to make the project feasible.

The State of Illinois and the City of Chicago need to work together to protect this significant building. A comprehensive redevelopment plan could correct the deferred maintenance issues with the building. A tower addition and other studies by Helmut Jahn’s design firm recently released indicate the flexibility and has suggested that the existing building could accommodate new construction that would add square footage while remaining sensitive to the historic building, atrium and public space. As of now, we want to see the building preserved in its entirety along with its public spaces, plazas and artwork.

James R. Thompson Center /State of Illinois Building. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

James R. Thompson Center /State of Illinois Building. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky


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