Postmodern Purgatory: Illinois Governor announces plan to sell Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center

Postmodern Purgatory: Illinois Governor announces plan to sell Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center

Illinois Governor Rauner announces state's plan to sell the Post Modern Icon.


Hot on the heels of round table discussions of the preservation of Postmodern monuments at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. One of Chicago’s most iconic and controversial Postmodern landmarks finds itself on unsure footing. The James R. Thompson Center, designed by Helmut Jahn and constructed in 1985, was the site of a press conference held by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to announce the proposed sale of the building.

According to Rauner the building is “ineffective” as an office space for state government, and was “just not useable for much of anything.” Standing in the grand circular public atrium, Rauner focused on the financial burden of the building and the financial possibilities of razing the structure.

According to the Governor the building has a deferred maintenance bill of over $100 million, and costs the state upwards of $12 million in operating costs every year. Conversely he speculated that a new development could produce 8,000 new construction jobs and $20 million a year in tax revenue. His comments on the architecture of the building were limited except to say it would “not cost much to take down.” He left the judgement to of the buildings aesthetic to the “eye of the beholder.”

Having been previously notified by the Governor’s office of the impending sale, architect Helmut Jahn responded in writing on Tuesday. Jahn was critical of the subsequent administrations since that of Governor James R. Thompson, the original client and building namesake, for not upholding the “vision… of building a symbol for the openness and transparency of the state government, an active urban center, and a lively urban and public place.”

In his letter, Jahn seemed resigned to the fact that there was little chance the state government would save the building. Instead he optimistically offered a path forward for the building through repurposing. He stated, “This requires upgrades to the retail and foodservice, marketing the large floor plates to innovative tech-companies…adding 24 hour uses… making it the most exciting place in the city.” In the past, other possible reuse plans have been put forward for the building to little avail, including a proposed casino.

Governor Rauner’s hope is to sell the site within the year to the highest bidder in a public auction. Considering the building’s location and access to public transportation, having multiple train stops in and under the building, it is expected to fetch a large sum. With that said, government land has not always found the anxious buyers it anticipates in Chicago. The South Loop’s U.S. Post Office being a case in point.

And though the final story has not been written about this intensely maligned building, it is looking as though the city may soon be losing a large interior public space of architectural significance.

James R. Thompson Center. Chicago, IL
(Photo by Rainer Viertlboeck) James R. Thompson Center. Chicago, IL
(Photo by Rainer Viertlboeck) Public atrium of the James R. Thompson Center. (Photo by Rainer Viertlboeck)