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Helmut Jahn pitches proposal to save Chicago’s Thompson Center

To protect and preserve

Helmut Jahn pitches proposal to save Chicago’s Thompson Center

(Daniel Lobo/Flickr)

It’s not every day that the architect of a 35-year-old governmental office building makes a personal plea to save their own work. But Chicago’s exuberantly postmodern James R. Thompson Center, which the State of Illinois state is attempting to sell off with considerable public push-back, is a special case. And Helmut Jahn won’t allow his creation to meet the wrecking ball without a fight, or, at the very least, a detailed plan on how to best reuse it.

Dubbed the “postmodern people’s palace,” the Thompson Center opened in 1985 on Chicago’s Loop as the State of Illinois Center. The building was renamed in 1993 in honor of former governor James R. Thompson, who commissioned it. Like other postmodern governmental buildings of the era such as Michael Graves’s Portland Building, the 17-floor office complex—a “slice of a hollow sphere, clad in curved blue glass and salmon-colored steel” per the Chicago Center for Architecture, with an intensely photogenic central atrium to boot—is the type of building that critics and the public love and love to hate. In a major American city with countless iconic buildings spanning different eras, the Thompson Center still, for better or worse, sticks out.

As reported by the Chicago Sun Times, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is intent on selling the Thompson Center and the full-block parcel that the building sits on as part of a three-year quest to find a buyer. Moving state offices out of the building could save an estimated $17 million annually while avoiding deferred maintenance costs totaling roughly $320 million. The administration of Pritzker’s predecessor, Governor Bruce Rauner, estimated that the Thompson Center could fetch as much as $200 million, but less if a potential buyer was blocked from razing the building and developing something new in its place.

Jahn, however, has a different idea: Keep the building as is, with some significant alterations that don’t detract from the center’s populist character, and readapt it to accommodate new offices, a hotel, and even co-living apartments.

Most dramatically, Jahn’s 10-page reuse plan, “Thompson Center: Inside Out,” calls for removing the building’s front doors and transforming the atrium into a sheltered outdoor space. He refers to the refreshed, repurposed building as “something new with a space that doesn’t belong to the state of Illinois but to the people of Chicago.”

Jahn elaborated in his proposal:

“I propose the doors come down, so the atrium becomes a public place with upgraded retail and restaurants. The lower floors, with up to 60,000 square feet, flexible tech-offices. Above, a hotel and co-living apartments with terraces facing the atrium. These terraces and those along the curved south side are greened with trees and climbing vines, which will grow well in this protected in-outside environment. The façade and the environmental systems will be tuned to work together and use the sun as an energy source.”

In addition to detailing his vision for a reimagined Thompson Center, Jahn warns of the negative impact that could stem from demolishing the building and redeveloping the site. “What we got for 175 million dollars in 1984 can become the heart in the now degrading central loop,” he wrote. “A demolition and replacement would not only take a long time but seeks high density without considering public benefits. We need not more bigger buildings but buildings which improve the public space.”

exterior of Chicago's Thompson Center, showing a large, round building clad in glass
The Thompson Center is home to numerous works of art including Jean Dubuffet’s “Monument Standing with Beast,” located outside the building’s front entrance. (Ken Lund/Flickr)

Jahn added that:

“Governor Pritzker has the opportunity, after years of neglect by his predecessors, to lead thru the sale of the Thompson Center by giving it new life. Repurposing the building the right way could go beyond what the building ever was, making it better, more public and a place where you want to work, stay overnight, live or just visit and feel good. Miracles and dreams can become real.”

As for Governor Pritzker, it would appear that his administration cannot be so easily swayed by the miracles and dreams of a visionary German-born, Chicago-based architect.

“The governor is committed to selling the Thompson Center to provide the best value to taxpayers,” Pritzker’s office told the Sun Times in a statement. “For the state’s purposes, the facility is larger than necessary, and the Department of Central Management Services is working expeditiously to identify a developer by the end of the year.”

interior of a colorful atrium in chicago
Looking up from the Thompson’s Center atrium. (Daniel Lobo/Flickr)

The Thompson Center’s endangered status isn’t new. Proposals to sell the building have been kicking around since the administration of former Governor Rod Blagojevich, who held office from 2003 to 2009 before he was impeached, convicted, and removed on corruption charges (and then pardoned). Preservationists have long rallied to save the idiosyncratic building, which is currently home to the Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Court of Claims, and other state entities. Most recently, it appeared (once again) on Chicago Preservation’s annual “Chicago 7” Most Endangered Buildings List.