After naming Chicago’s James R. Thompson Center as one of the state’s most endangered buildings for the second year running, the nonprofit group Landmarks Illinois went one step further in 2018 and commissioned renderings showing how the postmodern behemoth could be simultaneously preserved and redeveloped.
The images build off a 2017 conceptual design created by Helmut Jahn, the Thompson Center’s original architect. Jahn’s vision outlined saving the threatened building’s 1980s-era glass atrium while adding an slender, 110-story supertall tower to its southwest corner.
The plan was drafted as an alternative to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s calls to sell the state-owned property as a lucrative redevelopment site. Rauner and his allies even rolled out their own conceptual renderings showing the block-sized structure replaced by a 1,700-foot mixed-use skyscraper.
The latest images from Landmarks Illinois show the base of Jahn’s high-rise addition as well as dramatic changes to the Thompson Center’s street level plaza and atrium. The proposal would punch-out the building’s two-story entrance bays to bridge the indoors and outdoors, creating a flexible year-round public space similar to Jahn’s Sony Center in Berlin.
The solution even addresses the notoriously hard to heat and cool nature of the Thompson Center by allowing natural convection to regulate the temperature of the atrium via new skylight vents. Offices inside the building would be enclosed behind glass to separate work spaces from the now open-air central arcade.
Other advantages of this plan include eliminating the need to demolish the existing on-site CTA station as well as chance for developers to take advantage of Federal Historic Tax Credits thanks to the Thompson Center’s eligibility for future inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The proposal faces a number of challenges, including convincing state lawmakers that saving the Thompson Center makes financial sense over scraping the block and letting developers start from scratch. The building also still faces deferred maintenance bill in excess of $300 million and will need to address a laundry list of long-neglected issues.
Despite these concerns and the Thompson Center’s love-it-or-hate-it reputation, more preservationists are starting to recognize the value of protecting notable examples of postmodernism, despite the style wallowing in unloved territory between trendy and classic architecture.
Divided opinions aside, it’s doubtful that that a building such as the Thompson center will ever be recreated in Chicago. The structure was built in same ambitious scale as the train halls of other great civic buildings of the 19th and early 20th centuries. If it’s demolished, it will be gone for good.
More information on Landmarks Illinois’ conceptual adaptive reuse plan can be found here.