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Helmut Jahn calls Lucas Museum plan a mistake that won’t happen

Architect Helmut Jahn | Fran Spielman/For Sun-Times

The renowned Chicago architect who helped design McCormick Place East on Thursday branded Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s costly plan to demolish the building, to make way for movie mogul George Lucas’ museum, as a mistake that won’t happen.

“It looks like tearing down McCormick Place is not going to happen . . . It’s just too expensive. $1.1 billion for making way for a museum which is 300,000 square feet in a time when the state is bankrupt and the city is bankrupt?” architect Helmut Jahn said.

“I’ve never met Lucas or [his wife] Mellody Hobson. [But] when people spend so much money to set themselves a memorial, then they want all or nothing,” he said. “They don’t want to share.”

Hobson, a Chicago businesswoman, could not be reached for comment.

Emanuel’s plan calls for tearing down the above-ground portion of McCormick Place East; building the museum on a portion of the site that includes Arie Crown Theater; and replacing the lost convention space by building a $500 million McCormick Place expansion over Martin Luther King Drive.

The complex and controversial plan would require Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democratic legislative leaders and an Illinois General Assembly embroiled in a marathon budget stalemate to extend the life of five tourism taxes and authorize $1.2 billion in new borrowing.

A $743 million upfront cash contribution from Lucas would make the project possible for a McPier Authority that maxed out its credit card on an earlier expansion. That included a new hotel and a 10,000 seat basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.

The check would be used to make the first 16 years of debt payments on the so-called “bridge building” expansion.

The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this year that Jahn was circulating a sketch proposing to strip Lakeside Center “down to its bones and add a curving museum pavilion that would pop through its boldly overhanging roof.”

The story noted that Jahn was uniquely qualified to make such a suggestion after “helping architect Gene Summers of C.F. Murphy Associates design the Lakeside Center” during the 1960s.

A rendering of the proposed new design for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, in which the museum would take the place of the current McCormick Place East convention center building. | Provided rendering

A rendering of the proposed new design for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, in which the museum would take the place of the current McCormick Place East convention center building. | Provided rendering

On Thursday, Jahn made the case for that “repurposing.” He called it a better idea than demolishing a building that, he argued, “definitely has architectural value” and gets better with age.

“I’ve always said the value of a building comes with the distance of time. . . . There could be just a way to do this in a better way. . . . If you really want to do it, you could do it. You could actually make something much more interesting to merge something from the past with something in the future. You can remove a part of this roof and the museum — it can come out of it,” Jahn said.

Over the years, Jahn said there were “a couple of times” when McPier officials asked him to work on “repurposing” Lakeside Center.

“They said, `We always want to keep this exhibit hall because it’s the only exhibit hall in the country [that] has daylight. Not one of those dim boxes,” Jahn said.

“Gene [Murphy] and I — we fought like tooth-and-nail at that time with the general manager Ed Lee, who never wanted the glass. This was the time when he was threatening that he was going to paint the glass black so the daylight wouldn’t come in.”

After winning approval from the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday for a 506-unit residential tower at 920 S. Michigan Ave., Jahn also made the case for repurposing another “endangered” public building he designed: the Thompson Center, which Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to sell.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to be torn down . . . because it’s too expensive. And if it gets torn down, we have another Block 37 for the the next 27 or 30 years,” he said.

“Somebody wants to put four buildings up — one in each corner. This is going to be more and more difficult because we don’t need so many more buildings and there can only be so many apartments built. [Instead], we [can] find an innovative way how to keep the building and add to it,” he said.

Jahn bemoaned the fact that the state has allowed the Thompson Center to become what he called “kind of half a ruin” as Rauner tries to unload it, while Lakeside Center goes largely unused.

“They can’t find a couple million dollars to fix that stone down there and some other things? And McCormick Place being only partially used. It’s really only the upper level and the Arie Crown [Theater] is used a couple times a year,” he said.