A reprieve for the Thompson Center.
Late last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a deal to sell the love-it-or-hate it state building downtown to the Prime Group for $70 million. The development firm plans to overhaul the Helmut Jahn-designed structure rather than demolish it and start anew, as others had proposed.
“We took a look at the problems that have plagued this building since 1985 when it opened and those problems, we found, were very manageable,” said Michael Reschke, the Prime Group’s CEO. “The problems with the building really become the opportunities to make this building iconic and special and return it to the city inventory as a class A asset.”
The building’s known for its striking design, walls of glass, and bold color scheme – but it’s also known for its myriad mechanical issues and decades of deferred maintenance, at great cost to taxpayers. Preservationists and advocates feared the Thompson Center would be demolished in favor of a new structure. The group Landmarks Illinois has listed it as one of the state’s most endangered historic place multiple times. Bonnie McDonald, the organization’s president and CEO, said she was “ecstatic” to hear the announcement.
“We feel this is an absolute win-win for the citizens of the state, for what the governor and the legislature wanted to achieve, and also what we had hoped for which was to see a reuse of the building,” McDonald said. “We would never see a public building designed in this way again, and when I say that I mean it in the most positive sense. The space is awe-inspiring. It was intended to be a space that’s evocative of transparency in government. It’s an idealistic space and the design follows suit.”
Lee Bey, adjunct professor of architecture at IIT and member of the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, has also advocated in favor of saving the Thompson Center. Bey says he was pleasantly surprised to hear the announcement, but hopes to learn more about how exactly the developer might alter a building he calls special.
“It’s the shape, it’s the glass, it’s the color, it’s the festive nature of the atrium on the inside, both in sound and color and form. To take those things away, you essentially change the building. It’s like saying, ‘I like Paul Newman as an actor, but those blue eyes and that grin have to go.’ It’s not Paul Newman if you do that! That’s where the concern is,” Bey said.
Bey hopes some a city landmark designation or other sort of an agreement can strike a balance between preserving the original vision for the building with today’s needs.
“(We need) to figure out a designation that allows the developer to still do what he has to do so the building is functional for them, but also preserves … an agreed upon portion of the building’s original design so that we can still what the original intent was,” Bey said.
McDonald agrees that the devil’s in the details, and is reserving judgment on any of the potential redesign until more information is available. For now, she’s celebrating a win for preservation in a city that she says hasn’t always valued its historic buildings.
“We’ve seen in the last year and a half the opening of the old Cook County Hospital, the old Post Office, we’re now seeing Thompson Center being reused. It feels in many ways like a new day for seeing the value of our historic places,” McDonald said.