Save the Thompson Center, says its architect

Helmut Jahn calls for an open-air atrium leading to offices, a hotel and apartments.

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A rendering of a redesigned atrium at the Thompson Center.

A rendering of a redesigned atrium at the Thompson Center.

Helmut Jahn

Chicago architect Helmut Jahn has issued an impassioned plea for the preservation of his James R. Thompson Center, the Chicago seat of state government that lawmakers have said should be sold, which may mean a date with the wrecking ball.

Jahn sent to the Chicago Sun-Times a 10-page document with renderings outlining his proposal to adapt the building for offices, a hotel or perhaps “coliving” apartments. He also proposed removing the doors and making its atrium outdoor but sheltered space.

The Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., opened in 1985 and is named for former Gov. James Thompson, who backed Jahn’s modernist design as an expression of government transparency and connection to citizens. But it has suffered from years of deferred maintenance and state workers have reported continued trouble with noise and temperature control.

“A demolition and replacement would not only take a long time but seeks high density without considering public benefits,” Jahn said. “We need not more bigger buildings but buildings which improve the public space. Examples in many cities show that sensitive repurposing of buildings has produced better results than replacing them. I am making this plea, not only because I want the Thompson Center preserved. I am convinced that in the profit-focused real estate market of today, there isn’t any hope of replacing the building which Governor Jim Thompson called his own. By choosing the right design, he opened government to the public.”

His plans would thwart Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desire to get top dollar for the building and its full-block site in the Loop. He has said moving state offices in Chicago would save $17 million a year. Officials in former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration estimated the state could get $200 million for the property, but it would command less if a buyer couldn’t knock it down for a new high-rise.

An aide to Jahn said he has circulated about 20 copies of his proposal, and the architect was traveling and unavailable for immediate comment. The public’s feelings about the building have often been divided, but preservationists have worked to build support for saving it. Some have led public tours of the building.

“The governor is committed to selling the Thompson Center to provide the best value to taxpayers,” Pritzker’s office said in a statement. It said deferred maintenance would cost more than $320 million to fix.

“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,” the governor’s office said.

His administration in December hired a team led by Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors to manage a sale.

Last month, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s commissioner of planning and development, Maurice Cox, voiced intrigue with the idea of preserving the building but made no promises. “I’m absolutely fascinated by the Thompson Center question and the idea that a post-modern icon is now considered historic,” he said on the Sun-Times podcast “The Fran Spielman Show.”

“We’re going to work with the governor’s office to make sure the best thing happens there,” Cox added. The city has zoning authority over the property.

Jahn said, “Governor Pritzker has the opportunity, after years of neglect by his predecessors, to lead through 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.”

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