THREATENED: Thompson Center Named 11 Most Endangered Places in America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Chicago 7 2016, 2018 & 2019)

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


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

On May 30, 2019, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the Thompson Center on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country. The annual list spotlights examples of the nation’s architectural and cultural heritage that are at high risk.

On April 5, 2019, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill which lays out a two-year process to sell the Thompson Center. The State of Illinois will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) to invite developers to draft and submit redevelopment proposals. While the details and priorities of the RFP are unknown at this time, it is assumed that the State of Illinois’ top priority will be to maximize the sale price. Another example of short-sighted sales of public assets for one-time cash windfalls is the 2008 City of Chicago parking meter deal. If the Thompson Center is sold, the State of Illinois will need to rent other offices for the roughly 2,200 state employees that will likely be displaced.

The expected pricing is largely based on the height and density allowed by zoning under the legal jurisdiction of the City of Chicago. To maximize sale value and to ensure a smooth development process without interference, the City of Chicago will likely be asked to waive its legal oversight and to take steps to negate the role of the alderman and the public.

If the Thompson Center is sold, Preservation Chicago calls on the State of Illinois to prioritize preservation into its specifications for the eventual sale of the property. The history of Chicago’s built environment should not be destroyed. There are preservation-sensitive options to provide the high density that would still allow a healthy sale price.

As residents of the state, we understand the financial pressures that our legislature is working under due to mismanagement. Revenues from the sale of the Thompson Center would make a tiny dent (less than 0.2%) in Illinois’ $133 billion unfunded pension deficit.

If the State of Illinois so desperately needs the $250 million from the anticipated sale price of the Thompson Center, perhaps the $224 million allocated in the 2019 budget to road reconfiguration around Jackson Park to accommodate the Obama Presidential Center could be saved simply by moving the Obama Presidential Center to one of many other sites that already has the necessary infrastructure in place.

Preservation Chicago encourages the City of Chicago to work with the Governor and the State of Illinois to Landmark the Thompson Center along with its atrium, plaza, public space and Dubuffet sculpture to protect its historically significant elements. Since it was built in 1985, the building’s design and engineering challenges of the space have been a contentious topic for the city. However, it is an iconic representation of Post-Modern design by world-renowned architect Helmut Jahn.

The Thompson Center has made Preservation Chicago’s 7 Most Endangered List three times. Additionally, Landmarks Illinois chose to include the Thompson Center on its 2019 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois list.

The Thompson Center/State of Illinois Building’s design was meant to suggest a more open and transparent government while referencing the grand public buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Architect Helmut Jahn specifically noted in a public lecture in the 1980s on the building’s design that it recalled the massive dome and vast interior atrium space of the old Chicago Federal Building and Post Office designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb in 1905 and demolished in 1965.

The structure’s grand, 17-story atrium is topped by a vast skylight and stepped glass curtain wall which spans the entry and extends across most of the building’s footprint. This effect essentially creates a large public plaza both inside and outside the building’s Clark and Randolph Street entry. It was intended to welcome the public into a government building with accessible public spaces on multiple levels and extensive glass curtain walls to represent an open and transparent government.

The Thompson Center and its atrium were originally conceived to mix governmental offices with various services and retail uses with the intention of reinvigorating Chicago’s business district along Randolph and Clark Streets. At one time, public music concerts were held in its grand atrium space. This area of the Loop had once been the center of its theater and entertainment district, informally referred to as Chicago’s “Rialto District.”

Preservation Chicago believes that the scale of the Thompson Center and its vast, open plaza and public interior atrium spaces add to Chicagoans’ quality of life by allowing light and air into a dense section of the Loop. If sold to the highest bidder without preservation directives in place, these benefits are almost certain to be lost.

Additionally, the soaring central interior atrium was built by and for the people of the State of Illinois, and, therefore, should remain accessible to the public as a public building. Conceptual drawings that increase density but retain the historic building have been advanced by Helmut Jahn and Landmarks Illinois.

“The Monument with Standing Beast” sculpture located in the Thompson Center’s public plaza was created by one of the world’s most noted Modernist artists, Jean Dubuffet. It was a gift to the citizens of Chicago and Illinois and must be protected. We have seen important works of 20th century Chicago public art removed (Henry Bertoia’s Sonambient), destroyed (top surface mosaic of Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons), placed in storage (Alexander Calder’s The Universe) or sold at auction (Henry Moore’s Large Internal-External Upright Form). 20th century Chicago public art was a 2017 Chicago 7 Most Endangered, so it is imperative that this great Dubuffet sculpture be protected.

Preservation Chicago urges the City of Chicago to move quickly to designate the Thompson Center 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. Jahn’s career began in Chicago and is now celebrated around the world. Much like the Sony Center in Berlin (which was modeled on the Thompson Center), 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, and efforts to both protect its architecture and vision and activate the building should be implemented.

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. A tower-addition study by Helmut Jahn’s design firm 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.

Additional Reading

Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center makes national list of endangered historic places;This might help landmark the postmodern design, Sara Freund, Curbed Chicago, 5/30/19

Governor J.B. Pritzker puts Jahn’s Thompson Center up for sale; The state’s top elected official has established a two-year timeline to sell the controversial postmodern icon, Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 4/8/19

Pritzker to sell Helmut Jahn’s postmodern Thompson Center in Chicago, Bridget Cogley, Dezeen, 4/9/19

Column: Endangered buildings: It’s not just the Thompson Center. A Frank Lloyd Wright cottage and other sites are also at risk., Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 5/1/19


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