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Reprieve from wrecking ball? State panel backs historic listing for Thompson Center, adding incentives to preserve it

The Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council takes a position at odds with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and two state agencies. Listing the building on the national trust would not bar demolition, but it would make an owner who preserves it eligible for some tax breaks.

Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., should be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, a state panel said Friday.
Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., should be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, a state panel said Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

A state advisory board, bucking the Pritzker administration, Friday endorsed a measure that could save the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop from destruction by a developer.

The Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council recommended that the longtime center for state government in Chicago be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. The state is vacating the 36-year-old building, designed by the late Helmut Jahn, and has put it up for sale.

The council’s recommendation came on a 10-2 vote and is nonbinding on Gov. J.B. Pritzker or the agencies he leads. The issue now lands on the desk of Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, who is the state’s top officer for historic preservation. If the state does not nominate the building for the national register, an outside group can do so.

Both Callahan’s agency and the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which manages state-owned property, are on record opposing any recognition for the building, which state officials have repeatedly called “oversized, outdated and expensive.” The state could realize a higher sales price for its full block at 100 W. Randolph St. if a buyer could build a high-rise there.

Listing the building on the national trust would not bar demolition, but it would make an owner who preserves it eligible for tax breaks covering 20% of certain costs. Potential buyers have until Aug. 16 to submit a proposal to the state.

Preservation groups said the federal listing helps the state by encouraging a wider pool of buyers. They said the 17-story building, known for its atrium, indoor and outdoor public spaces and abundant glass, merits federal recognition as a postmodern icon.

Interior of the Thompson Center
Interior of the Thompson Center
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

“It’s still so perplexing that the state is working so vehemently to prevent this from going forward,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois.

Jonathan Solomon, partner in the firm Preservation Futures, said he hopes Pritzker will consider the council’s recommendation. “Politics should not be a part of this process. That’s why the council exists as an independent democratic body,” he said.

Solomon, who made the case for the building during the council’s meeting, said the federal listing “makes it possible for more buyers to be involved and makes the sale more competitive.”

Pritzker’s office had no immediate comment Friday. A spokeswoman for Callahan said the council’s vote and related documents will be reviewed.

Preservation of the building gained new attention with Jahn’s death in May in a cycling accident near his home in far west suburban St. Charles. Pritzker afterwards praised Jahn’s influence on architecture worldwide, but said, “The James R. Thompson Center was a building that never lived up to his creative genius.”

Architect Helmut Jahn in 2000.
Architect Helmut Jahn in 2000.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

That view has now been challenged by a 15-member council that includes historians, architects and other professionals.

The state bought a building at 555 W. Monroe St. for $73.25 million and is consolidating offices there. It said the move will save $21.3 million in annual rent and operating costs downtown.

The City Council has rezoned the Thompson Center to allow a high-rise on the site. Jahn and preservation advocates had drafted plans to add a tower to a portion of the building, preserving its atrium and glass walls.

Philip Castillo, executive vice president at the Jahn architecture firm, said he favors adaptive reuse of the building. “This is one of the most amazing urban spaces in the United States,” he said, adding, “The space has never been used to the full potential.”

He said the firm has been contacted by a developer interested in submitting a proposal to the state. Castillo declined to name the developer.