The James R. Thompson Center is hard to miss. The 17-story, sloping glass structure occupies an entire city block in downtown Chicago.
Designed by architect Helmut Jahn in the postmodern style, the 1.2-million-square-foot building opened in 1985 as the State of Illinois Center. It houses offices for some 2,200 state employees, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose suite is on the top floor. Public spaces on its lower levels include a food court, shops and busy Clark-Lake CTA station.
But the building faces an uncertain future.
In April, Pritzker signed a bill paving the way for its sale within two years. The governor’s office said the building is too expensive to maintain and repair, citing a 2016 estimate of deferred maintenance costs tallying $326 million.
“Almost everything you see in this building is original and it’s over 30 years old – it’s beyond its life expectancy,” said Ayse Kalaycioglu, chief operating officer of Central Management Services, the agency that manages the Thompson Center and other state-owned properties. “It’s the largest asset that the state has. It’s very costly to operate this building – it costs nearly $17 million a year.”
In response to the planned sale, three volunteers calling themselves the James R. Thompson Center Historical Society are giving free public tours of the building to provide context on its design features, political history and explore adaptive reuses for the structure.
The group, composed of architect Jonathon Solomon, architectural historian Elizabeth Blasius and freelance real estate reporter AJ LaTrace, seeks to underscore the building’s value to those who eat at its food court, frequent its shops, utilize its government services and admire its architecture.
“There’s a lot of diversity of opinion about the James R. Thompson Center – a lot of people like it, a lot of people don’t like it,” Solomon said. “We’re less interested in personal opinion about the building and more interested in the ways in which it contributes valuably to public life in the north Loop and city of Chicago.”
The building’s state of disrepair is undeniable. In various offices, ceiling leaks and the carpets are visibly stained. Elsewhere, a sign announces the closure “until further notice” of the Illinois State Museum.
“That was closed during the budget impasse of 2015. It never reopened,” LaTrace told a recent tour group.
He questions the state’s management of the building.
“Is it the building’s fault that some of these things are happening?” he asked. “Your own personal house – or our homes or cars or other complicated machines or buildings – if we’re not maintaining them, the roof is leaking, you’re going to fix it, right? I mean, that’s the whole point.”
Kalaycioglu said the state plans to choose a project manager by the end of the year to assist in the Thompson Center’s sale. If sold, state employees working in the center will relocate across the street to the Bilandic Building and other state-owned offices.
Pritzker’s office said the property has not been appraised recently, although former Gov. Bruce Rauner believed it could net $300 million when he explored that option a few years ago. Pritzker has indicated he may use revenue from the building’s sale to help pay down the state’s underfunded pension systems.
The next James R. Thompson Center Historical Society tour is Dec. 5 at noon.
Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia
Note: This story was originally published Nov. 27, 2019.