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Save the Thompson Center

Demolition would rob Chicago of an architectural classic, with its soaring, spectacular, glass-topped atrium.

A nearly empty James R. Thompson Center in March 2020.
For all the building’s faults, the James R. Thompson Center atrium is one of Chicago’s greatest public spaces — and reason alone for preserving the building.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Helmut Jahn and I once talked — I can’t believe this conversation was 21 years ago already — about Sony Center, his then-brand new project opening on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz.

As we went over the details of the $800 million project, Jahn focused on a cobblestone-like curved walkway that led from the street into the complex. The path is privately owned, but Jahn purposely gave it the feel of a public way. He wanted the public to venture into Sony Center and feel like they belonged.

That was quite a design gesture in 2000, given that just a little more than a decade before, Potsdamer Platz was a barricaded Cold War no-man’s land dividing East from West. But Sony officials, contrary to Jahn’s vision of openness, wanted doors at the walkway’s entrance.

‘’They said, ‘We need some doors here,’ “ Jahn told me. “I said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘It’s going to be a security problem at night.’’’

Jahn, one of architecture’s brightest lights over the past 50 years — who was killed on Saturday in a bicycle accident in Kane County — cared about the design of civic spaces in his work. He said no to the Sony Center doors.

And within a few days of our talk, I saw Sony Center in person as this paper’s architecture critic. I strolled the walkway. Jahn was absolutely right.

Which brings us to what irks me most about the State of Illinois’ decision last week to slap a for-sale sign on the Sony Center’s design cousin, the Jahn-designed Thompson Center in Chicago’s Loop, in hopes that a developer will buy the building, demolish it and put up something new.

Wrecking the Thompson Center robs Chicago of a one-of-a-kind building, taking with it that soaring, spectacular, glass-topped atrium. A showstopper of glass, color and motion, the atrium is one of our city’s most special public spaces; so much so that it pushes back against more than 40 years of poor stewardship by the state — the cheaping out on construction details and maintenance.

The state dislikes the Thompson Center so badly that it’s already relocating employees to 555 W. Monroe, a building it purchased for $73 million. The state doubled-down on the hate last week by issuing a request for developers’ proposals that doesn’t even suggest finding a reuse for the building as a possibility.

All in the service of allowing some developer to wreck the stunningly unique structure and replace it with leasable interior space under private ownership and control. The state might just as well carve out a corner of Starved Rock State Park for a condo development.

Reuse rather than demolish

Illinois officials should have positioned the Thompson Center sale as a step toward the most exciting building-reuse project in the country.

And Chicago knows how to do this, from turning the dilapidated former 1893 World’s Fair Palace of Fine Arts building into the Museum of Science and Industry in 1933 to the recent $800 million makeover of the Old Main Post Office straddling the Eisenhower Expressway.

The Pritzker administration and state officials should have the courage to tie into that Chicago legacy, rather than into our city’s other one, which is to see a building — and find a way to tear it down.

Revisit Jahn’s plan?

I’ve never believed the state will get $200 million for the Thompson Center. It seems unlikely a developer would shell out that much money, plus assume the cost of a complex and expensive demolition that requires the stations serving the four CTA train lines that stop at the Thompson Center to remain open.

If no developer steps up, the state could end up significantly writing down the building’s price or giving it away in order to jump-start something new happening there. And the taxpayers will lose again.

Unless, of course, the building goes to a developer who seeks to reuse and preserve as much as possible, including public access to the atrium and restaurant spaces.

Back in 2016, Jahn proposed keeping the building and attaching a slender tower of condos and apartments to its southwest side. The existing building would feature retail, offices and restaurants, while preserving public access to atrium.

“The architectural history is full of examples where such re-purposing has brought new life to structures like this,” Jahn said in a statement then. “This will require some changes be made. The building will only survive this way, and will become a landmark for the 21st Century.”

As with the doors in Berlin, Jahn — may he rest in peace — was right. And if the state were smart, it would take a new look at his plans.

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