Demolition of Thompson Center facade, atrium for Google makeover approved by city

The $6 million demolition isn’t a complete surprise, but it possibly means the end of the building’s current blue, salmon and white color scheme, one of its signature features.

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The metal and glass exterior of the Thompson Center is being demolished.

The metal and glass exterior and interior atrium of the Thompson Center will be demolished as a prelude to Google’s $280 million rehab of the building.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The city has granted permits to demolish the exterior and atrium of the Thompson Center — a critical early step in Google’s $280 million efforts to remake the former state government building into the company’s Chicago headquarters.

Under permits issued Oct. 13 by the Department of Buildings, Google will — at minimum — remove the metal and glass skin on the 17-story structure at 100 W. Randolph St. and on its soaring, trademark atrium as well.

The demolition project is expected to cost $6 million, according to the permit.

The move isn’t a complete surprise. Renderings released after the tech giant’s takeover of the building last year show prospective views of the renovated edifice with new exterior and interior glazing that either abandoned or muted the building’s current blue, salmon and white color scheme — one of its signature features — and other architectural details.

But Google securing the permits is a key indicator that the renovation project soon will be underway.

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A Google spokesperson had no comment Tuesday on the project, other than to say a formal announcement could be made within weeks.

Completed in 1985 and designed by architect Helmut Jahn, the zoomy, spaceshiplike building received mixed reactions from Chicagoans from the start.

On the one hand, it was praised for its forward-looking architecture and the generous atrium space that acted as an enclosed public square.

But the building was plagued by construction cost cutbacks that resulted in the use of cheap-looking materials, window leaks, and an initial heating and lighting air conditioning system that failed to work properly.

The atrium at the Thompson Center is being removed as part of a makeover by Google, which bought the building last year.

The original, colorful cladding and detailing of the Thompson Center atrium will be removed as part of a makeover by Google, which bought the building last year.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Years of deferred maintenance only worsened the problems and made the building more expensive to operate. Previous Illinois governors Rod Blagojevich and Bruce Rauner unsuccessfully tried to sell the building to any developer willing to wreck the structure in favor of a new privately owned office tower.

But current Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2022 managed to preserve the building — or perhaps most of it — by selling it to Google for $105 million. The company would then convert the building into a headquarters for 2,000 of its employees.

Jahn died in a 2021 bicycle accident. Neither Google nor representatives of Jahn — which is now the name of the architecture firm leading the renovation — would provide any details of the planned work. But the task will likely include replacing the building’s single-paned glass facades with ones that are more energy-efficient.

A rendering of a renovated Thompson Center.

A 2022 rendering showing how a renovated Thompson Center might look.

Jahn Architecture

Landmarks Illinois CEO Bonnie McDonald, whose organization helped lead efforts to preserve the Thompson Center, said she has not seen the demolition permit, but allowed there are “known concerns about the energy efficiency of the building’s current non-insulated windows.”

Added McDonald: “While we realize losing the existing windows would change the character of the building and add to the waste stream, we also recognize the need and opportunity to make historic buildings more energy efficient — something Landmarks Illinois supports. We take in the big picture that the building is being reused, and that is a win.”

But Preservation Chicago said it wants Google and the city to protect the Thompson Center by granting the building landmark status.

“It’s time to recognize the significance of the work of Helmut Jahn, and this building that placed him on the world’s stage,” said Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller.

“To further ignore this situation and risk the loss of the design concept and significant features, would once again be an embarrassment to the city of Chicago and its architecture legacy,” Miller said.

Lee Bey is the Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic and a member of the Editorial Board. He is the author of “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side” and is working on a book about West Side architecture.

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