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Architect Helmut Jahn’s death reignites debate over sale of his renowned — and reviled — Thompson Center

Advocates for preserving and reusing the James R. Thompson Center plan to renew their push for landmarking it in light of the pending sale and the architect’s death. But Gov. J.B. Pritzker said it “was a building that never lived up to his creative genius.”

The James R. Thompson Center, located at 100 W. Randolph St. in the Loop, on Monday.
The James R. Thompson Center, located at 100 W. Randolph St. in the Loop, on Monday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Arguing that the controversial Loop structure is Helmut Jahn’s definitive achievement, preservation advocates said Monday that the untimely death of the German architect “really does cement the argument that the Thompson Center should be preserved.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who put the building up for sale last week, on Monday said the state lost “a great artistic genius,” but the James R. Thompson Center doesn’t fall under the category of great, artistic work.

“It’s not the greatest example of his work,” the governor said.

Jahn, 81, who designed the state government building at 100 W. Randolph and other notable structures in Chicago and around the world, died Saturday afternoon when he was struck by two vehicles while riding his bicycle in Campton Hills, near his home in far west suburban St. Charles.

Advocates for preserving and reusing the Thompson Center plan to renew their push for landmarking it in light of the pending sale and the architect’s death.

“This is a building built for the people, by the people, and it should be protected by the ... city and the state as a Chicago landmark,” said Ward Miller, the executive director of Preservation Chicago.

“I think it really does define his career,” Miller said of the Thompson Center. “There may still be projects by Jahn in process, but we are never, ever going to see another design by Helmut Jahn be constructed other than what’s already planned, and I think that it really does cement the argument that the Thompson Center should be preserved.”

Architect Helmut Jahn in his East Wacker Drive office in 2006.
Architect Helmut Jahn in his East Wacker Drive office in 2006.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Miller and others who hope to preserve the building, which has served as the Chicago headquarters for state government since 1985, say now is the time to recognize “if we’re going to be a world class city ... these kinds of buildings need to be preserved.”

Preservation Chicago, as part of a coalition of eight local, state and national groups, previously submitted the building for consideration of landmark status, and Miller said they plan to do so “probably within the next week.”

Asked about the architect’s death Monday at an unrelated news conference, Pritzker paid tribute to the architect but not his most famous Chicago work.

“The James R. Thompson Center was a building that never lived up to his creative genius,” Pritzker said. “We’ve obviously put out [a Request for Proposals] that allows people who are thinking about buying the property to preserve the building or choose something else.”

Then Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker at a news conference outside the Thompson Center in 2018.
Then Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and running mate Juliana Stratton speak during a news conference outside the Thompson Center in 2018.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Last year, Jahn issued his own plea to spare the Thompson center.

Asked if the state is considering adding a requirement to honor Jahn to their request for proposals, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of Central Management Services, which oversees state properties, said “not at this time.”

A spokesperson for Pritzker did not answer a question about whether the governor would make such a request, saying only Pritzker “joins millions around the world in mourning the great loss of Helmut Jahn. The future use of this site will be determined by the purchaser selected through the competitive RFP process, and the state is open to all proposals, including preserving the building or choosing other ways to honor Jahn’s vision and creativity.”

State guidelines for the sale already require potential buyers to commit to naming at least a portion of their development in honor of the late former Gov. James Thompson, the driving political force behind the building’s construction, who died last year.

A.J. LaTrace, a reporter who covers real estate and a founding member of the James R. Thompson Center Historical Society, said Pritzker’s comment was “unfair.”

There’s been a lot of discussion of the “technical flaws or issues with the building,” but technology has changed since the center was built, and Chicago is “never going to get a building like this again” downtown, LaTrace said.

“I think anyone who follows, or anyone who’s really tapped into, the architectural legacy of our city knows that or would probably say the same thing,” LaTrace said.

He urged everyday Illinoisans to go “in there to see it for themselves.”

A woman enters a Walgreens located at the James R. Thompson Center, at 100 W. Randolph St. on Monday.
A woman enters a Walgreens located at the James R. Thompson Center, at 100 W. Randolph St. on Monday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“I think that when you’ve been fed the same narrative over and over for 20 or 30 years about its issues, I think people tend to forget that it is a building that can inspire some sort of sense of imagination and wonderment and maybe even enchantment, but also break up this ... skyscraper canyon of the central loop,” LaTrace said.

Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, said the group is “as committed as ever to advocating for rehabilitation and reuse of the Thompson Center to honor Jahn’s legacy and vision and what we view as one of the most iconic Post Modern designs in the nation.”

A model of the proposed State of Illinois Center, unveiled in 1980 by then Gov. James Thompson. 
A model of the proposed State of Illinois Center, unveiled in 1980 by then Gov. James Thompson.
Sun-Times archives

Pritzker issued a request for proposals for the sale of the downtown state government building last week. State officials have said it could need more than $500 million in repairs, a figure Miller said may be “inflated.”

The governor said at the time selling the property would help “maximize taxpayer savings, create thousands of union jobs, generate millions of dollars in real estate taxes to benefit the City of Chicago and spur economic development.”

The center won praise for its innovative structure when it opened in 1985, but it’s been equally well known for state employees’ complaints over its state of disrepair, which has included temperature problems, leaky ceilings, odors from the lower level food court and cockroaches.

LaTrace said preserving the building may be a “matter of political will.”

“We all know that our mayor and governor are very PR-conscious people, like a lot of politicians, and so I think if enough people say they want to see this building saved, they they may change their opinions or attitudes about it.”