Thompson Center Saved from Demolition

John Hill
16. December 2021
The James R. Thompson Center in 2013. (Photo: Ken Lund/Wikimedia Commons)

A development plan preserving the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago, a postmodern icon designed by Helmut Jahn, has been accepted in the State of Illinois's bid to sell the building.

The plan was announced by Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker yesterday at a press conference, where he was accompanied by developer Mike Reschke of Prime Group, who bid $70 million for the building and will spend $280 million to renovate the 17-story building for office, retail, and hotel uses. Reschke's bid was just one of two submitted in response to the State's RFP (request for proposals) issued earlier this year; the other came from Bob Dunn of Landmark Development, "who wanted to demolish the Thompson Center in a favor of several high-rises," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. As part of the winning plan, the State of Illinois will retain around 30% ownership of the building and occupy 425,000 square feet of office space inside. 

Proposed exterior renovation. (Visualization: JAHN)

In the months leading up to yesterday's announcement, fears of the iconic building designed by Helmut Jahn, who died in May of this year, were fueled by reports of a half billion dollars being needed to renovate the building so it meets current standards (famously, it was value engineered from double- to single-pane glass in the 1980s, resulting in a full-height atrium and adjacent offices that were hot even in winter months, plus it has three decades of deferred maintenance) and a rezoning targeting the Loop blocks it sits on that would have allowed considerably more square footage than the current building. Parties wishing to see the building remain countered with an ideas competition reimagining the building and, years earlier, a proposal from Jahn himself to transform the building into the base for a new tower.

Proposed atrium renovation. (Visualization: JAHN)

While preservationists should be pleased with the plan to save the Thompson Center, fans of postmodern architecture will probably be discouraged by the proposal. Although Prime Group is a firm sympathetic to postmodernism, having commissioned Ricardo Bofill to design 77 West Wacker Drive in the early 1990s, and it gets points for hiring JAHN for the RFP, the renderings indicate that the pastel blues and reds that helped make the building a PoMo icon are nowhere to be found. With a new curtain wall, the modification of the curving colonnade facing its corner plaza, and other apparent changes, the architectural character of the building that opened in 1985 as the State of Illinois Center (it was renamed to the Thompson Center in 1993) will be dramatically altered in the two-year modernization and renovation that could start next year after the sale is finalized. The building's spaceship-like form will remain, but the "postmodern icon" monicker will no longer apply to it.

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