Saving the Thompson Center requires boldness worthy of its architect

While the state looks for top dollar, an architecture group has called for ideas for preservation.

SHARE Saving the Thompson Center requires boldness worthy of its architect
The part of the James R. Thompson Center that links to the CTA could be important to preserving the building.

The part of the James R. Thompson Center that links to the CTA could be important to preserving the building.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Is there any hope for those who want to preserve the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop?

We might have a sense of this in a few weeks. Aug. 16 is the deadline the state has set for proposals to acquire the building and its full-block site. The state then wants time for review, to interview the proposers and let them submit revisions, with a goal of picking a winner in November.

Another important deadline is today, Monday, 5 p.m. to be exact. It’s when submissions are due for a competition the Chicago Architecture Club is running for proposals to reuse the property. The club’s contest was an incentive for architects, engineers and anybody else with an interest in design to put on their thinking caps.

The goal here is not a transaction but preservation. What are the best ideas for reusing a building that for its flaws and flourishes was a 1980s attempt to redefine civic space and traditional government architecture? With its atrium that lets the sun pour in, the building stands in contrast to those that worship rentable square feet. It is defiantly inefficient.

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So two processes are underway, but the power lies with the state. It’s the owner, and it has made clear its desire to maximize the sale price. In contrast, nobody has to listen to what the architecture club comes up with, even if the death in May of the Thompson Center’s renowned architect, Helmut Jahn, has given the whole matter poignance.

Yet the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., is hardly an easy case study, and it’s quite possible the state will be disappointed with the responses. It can be a teardown, but it’s also the CTA’s busiest hub, and service to six L lines has to be maintained. A developer who wants to go big on the site has to decide what they are building for. An office market in work-from-home transition? High-rise housing with so much competition? And who really needs another hotel?

The Thompson Center is a quandary that has intrigued the dean of Chicago developers, John Buck. Buck has handled many challenges over the past 40 years, building up Wacker Drive and giving new life to Michigan Avenue with his North Bridge development that spanned nine blocks and entailed historic preservation. In 2018, he finished an office tower for CNA two blocks west of the Thompson Center.

“I have looked at that building, either to repurpose it or even building a tower on part of the property. None of these exercises approached anything that made sense to me,” Buck said.

Yet he said the building is of “landmark quality” and should be preserved for public use. He won’t be answering the state’s call for proposals. The site has too many financial unknowns, he said, mindful the state has estimated repairing the place will cost $325 million. One of the structure’s main issues, he said, is that “it was cheapened quite a bit during the construction process.” Double-pane glazing became single-pane.

Buck said he’d like to see the state deed it to the city or maybe a school. He suggested a conversation with a leading Chicago architect, Lamar Johnson.

“I’ve come around to be an ardent supporter of maintaining the building while recognizing its many flaws,” Johnson said. He’d like to give it an open-air atrium, saving on the HVAC costs, while celebrating its CTA connections.

“It’s the transportation center of Chicago for CTA right now. It just doesn’t express itself very well.” With its connections to the Blue and Orange lines, it could be where the city gets its long-shot dream of express service to the airports, with ticketing and baggage checks on-site, he said. “If you make the building more viable, I think tenants would show up there,” Johnson said.

Lamar_Johnson_2.jpg

Lamar Johnson

Clayco

His firm, Lamar Johnson Collaborative, part of Clayco, is working on this. He said he’s got “a small cottage industry” preparing an entry for the architectural competition. He mentioned this not to seek publicity or advantage and declined to show any renderings. But if other contestants share his enthusiasm, we could see excellent and even practical answers. The architecture club said an independent panel will judge the entries without knowing who submitted them.

Maybe there will be a great idea, or the combined weight of several ideas, to induce Gov. J.B. Pritzker to opt for preservation. “It seems like the most sustainable building you can create is the one that already exists,” Johnson said.

It won’t be easy, and many will argue that it’s irresponsible not to sell it for top dollar and bring it on the tax rolls in a big way. But wrong moves can create a downtown drag similar to the old Block 37.

Thinking “outside the box” made Jahn world famous. The same is needed now from those who would save his Thompson Center and make it shine in the Loop.

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