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 Helmet 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 notable 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 and Chicago’s city centers.
The recent action to appoint an advisor 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 Post.odern 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. Such ideas as this extension of the structure were popular with other 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 Post-Modern 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.
The Thompson Center/State of Illinois Building’s futuristic design and program was unique and progressive for its day in the 1980s, which in part diminished the barriers between a traditional government building and a more public building with its amenities and spaces. The public plaza, the covered arcades, the vast 17-story atrium, retail shops on the first two levels, the concourse level of restaurants, and the transit center were all integrated into a public building—“a people’s palace” — with governmental offices located above. This was an extraordinary and revolutionary departure from both the design, program and public interfacing of government buildings of the past.
A vast number of more traditional government buildings throughout the country embraced a pared-down and streamlined Classicism in the last half of the 20th century, while structures in larger cities like Chicago took on a more International-Style approach of a glass building, rectangular in form, and more restrained and formal in overall design. Perhaps in a place like Chicago it was in response to the work of modern masters like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and followers of the New Bauhaus. The Thompson Center, in comparison, took a new approach which was much more exuberant in its overall design – its shape, its Deconstructivist appearance, where the building’s hard lines and elevations on three facades soften with broad curving forms at the building’s principal elevation at Clark and Randolph Streets.
Yet all of the elevations were glass, and the main entry and principal elevation were transparent suggesting a more open, transparent and interactive government between State officials and the people of the State of Illinois. This is accomplished while still referencing and emulating the grandiose and magnificent large, 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. That domed structure was completed in 1905, and located on the block bounded by Dearborn, Adams and Clark Streets and Jackson Boulevard. The old Federal Building was designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb and demolished in 1965.
The unique design of the Thompson Center has curvilinear walls comprised of irregularly shaped glass panels which presented distinct challenges to the building construction methods of the 1980s. This resulted in construction costs being more expensive than originally projected. As mentioned previously, the Thompson Center inspired Helmut Jahn’s much-acclaimed and vibrant Sony Center in the heart of Berlin some 20 years later.
The Thompson Center was architect Helmut Jahn’s most significant public building at the time. It was a bold design idea to represent the State’s Chicago offices. Recognized internationally for its architecture, it served as a “second state capitol building” intended to project the State’s influence in the largest and most populous city in Illinois. It was designed to capture the viewer’s attention and signal its importance as a seat of government. The building’s futuristic styling generated, and continues to generate, both support and criticism.
The structure’s grand, 17-story atrium is topped by a vast skylight and stepped glass curtain-wall which spans the corner entry, extending across most of the building’s Randolph and Clark Street facades. This effect essentially creates a large public plaza both inside and outside the building’s main entry and extends to the concourse level of the building. 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 State of Illinois Building and its atrium were originally conceived to mix governmental offices with various services and retail, which was intended to reinvigorate the City’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.”
The “Rialto District” once included such entities as the Bismarck/Palace Theater, the Garrick/Schiller Theater (demolished), the Woods Theater (demolished), the United Artists/Apollo Theater (demolished), the Oriental Theater (now known as the Nederlander Theater), the Colonial/Iroquois Theater (demolished), the Erlanger Theater (demolished), and the RKO Grand (demolished). Additional theaters included the Harris and Selwyn/Michael Todd Theaters (now the Goodman Theater) around the corner on Dearborn, the Chicago Theater, the Roosevelt Theater (demolished), the Loop Theater (demolished), State-Lake Theater (demolished), the Capital (demolished), and the Randolph Theater (demolished) on nearby State Street. Nearby and within a few blocks also was the Clark Theater (demolished), the Monroe Theater (demolished) and the Today Theater (demolished). The Rialto District was supported by a vibrant collection of famous Chicago restaurants, including Henrici’s, Toffenetti’s, Old Heidelberg, Holloway House, South Pacific, Mayor’s Row, Hoe Sai Gai, Stouffer’s, Pixley & Ehler’s and the Blackhawk, extending eastward to Wabash Avenue.
The site of the Thompson Center/State of Illinois Building was previously occupied by the legendary 1,700-room Sherman House Hotel, which stood mothballed from 1973 until its demolition prior to the construction of the State of Illinois Building. Founded in 1837 and renamed the Sherman House in 1844, it was a great landmark in Chicago since its earliest years and was home to the College Inn, various hotel restaurants, and many jazz venues. The State of Illinois Building was intended to channel the energy of “The Sherman” and reinvigorate the faded Randolph Street Corridor, one of the oldest sections of the Loop’s business and entertainment district.
The Thompson Center building never achieved the vibrancy envisioned by Helmut Jahn and former Governor Thompson. Its retail tenants have become more mundane over time and deferred maintenance has negatively impacted its appearance.
The State of Illinois Building was renamed the James R. Thompson Center in 1993 to honor the longest-serving governor of Illinois who served from 1977 to 1991. Governor Thompson was a strong proponent in the selection of Helmut Jahn as the architect for the new state office building. Additionally, Governor Thompson was instrumental in selecting the most extravagant and grandiose of Jahn’s design options for the building. For pop culture fans, the building is featured prominently in the climatic ending of the movie Running Scared starring Billy Crystal and Gregory Hynes.
Governor J.B. Pritzker signed legislation to move forward with plans to sell the James R. Thompson Center. While former Governor Bruce Rauner estimated the sale would generate $300 million in revenue, that number is both questionable and perhaps short-sighted. In addition, the budget numbers compiled to repair the Thompson Center appear to be very high estimates, and it is possible those numbers could be lowered if a second estimate were prepared by another independent firm.
that the public listing of the building for sale has not yet been released, there is concern the building will be sold to a developer seeking to demolish it and maximize height in a newly constructed building on the site.
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, 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 also been advanced by Helmut Jahn and Landmarks Illinois. The “Postmodern People’s Palace” should remain in the realm and domain of the people of Illinois.
Also, of great note on the site is one of Chicago’s great public sculpture works by an internationally recognized artist of the 20th Century. 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), whitewashed (All of Mankind mural by William Walker), 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, and it is imperative that this great Dubuffet sculpture be protected.
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.