Under a surreal backdrop of swirling snow, a group of grassroots architectural buffs and dedicated preservationists gather in the soaring 17-story atrium of the James R. Thompson Center on Thursday afternoon. The bustling public space serves a refuge, civic center, and transit hub—but this gathering here is for a free tour of the most endangered postmodern building in Chicago.
The group grows to more than two dozen people, and one attendee arrives dressed up in a blue and pink model of the state-owned structure designed by architect Helmut Jahn and completed in 1985. Even Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward) is curious enough to drop in.
“Welcome to the James R. Thompson Center Historical Society,” announces architect Jonathan Solomon, who formed the group this fall along with architectural historian Elizabeth Blasius and journalist AJ LaTrace. “We’re here to advocate for this spectacular building and its history: its past, its present, and future.”
The Thompson Center Historical Society and its public tours aren’t exactly sanctioned by the State of Illinois, but they don’t need to be. Nor do the tours go into any of the state offices or private spaces—and that’s kind of the point.
The tour organizers stress that the atrium, plaza, retail arcade, food court, and CTA station of the Thompson Center are public space for all to experience and enjoy. But that could change if the state goes through with its plan to sell the controversial building and use the proceeds to help stabilize its pension system.
“We call the Thompson Center the ‘postmodern people’s palace’ because it belongs to the taxpayers of Illinois and the citizens of Chicago,” Blasius tells Curbed Chicago. “Its design goals fulfill the actions that take place here: government operating alongside civil disobedience and activism.”
The tour’s special guest, Alderman Ramirez-Rosa, chimes in with his support for preserving the Thompson Center. Although the elected official’s ward doesn’t include the building at 100 W. Randolph Street, Ramirez-Rosa has fond memories of it. He was brought to the site as a child by his parents for political protests and later hung out in the food court waiting for trains while attending Whitney Young Magnet School.
“We’re told that we have to enact policies to maximize profit and that we are only worth what profits can be extracted from us,” the alderman tells the crowd. “We’re told that about our bodies, we’re told that about the planet, and we’re being told that about the Thompson Center as well. I side with preservationists because things that cannot be quantified are still worth saving—things like this building.”
The state, however, has no problem putting a price tag on the property as Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker looks to sell the Thompson Center’s block-sized site to developers for an estimated $200 million. The move would also allow officials to avoid paying more than $300 million in deferred maintenance which has resulted in leaky ceilings and distressed carpeting.
“We’ve heard these figures from the state, but what are the actual costs?” asks LaTrace, who would like to see greater transparency in the appraisal process and more details regarding the estimated repair costs.
Publicly devaluing the Thompson Center plays into the state’s hands to sell the property, the preservationists argue, despite the fact that it could ultimately hurt how much officials can get for the property. Perpetuating common misconceptions like the building is infested with cockroaches and that odors from the food court waft up to the office levels aren’t helping either, they say.
At one point on the tour, the guides hold up a rendering of the One Central megadevelopment proposed for the rail yards next to Soldier Field. Much like the Thompson Center, the image shows a massive glass-enclosed atrium lined with shops and a food hall leading to rail platforms below. “This looks familiar, right?” remarks LaTrace.
“Earlier this year, the developers of One Central had asked the state for $3 billion to $5 billion to build and own this transit hub and mall in the South Loop. So we’re told that we don’t have the $300 million to maintain the Thompson Center, but may spend billions for a development that is unproven and could take decades to build.”
The next visual aid is a rendering created by Helmut Jahn and Landmarks Illinois that shows how most of the Thompson Center could be preserved while also constructing a new high-rise tower at the site’s southwest corner.
The image, although purely conceptual, illustrates that there are options to save parts of the building. The preservation society also points to the recent rehabilitation of Chicago’s Old Post Office and Cook County Hospital building as examples of what can be done with long-neglected “white elephant” properties.
The state is expected to pick a private firm to oversee the process of marketing and eventually selling the building later this month. In the meantime, the James R. Thompson Center Historical Society will continue to conduct public tours, engage preservation stakeholders, and keep the conversation alive.
The tour reminds guests that the building still serves its purpose as a grand civic space—a place where the people of Illinois and their government can come together under one giant roof.
It also illustrates that historic preservation isn’t simply about maintaining an old decaying building as is. That’s not a realistic or sustainable solution for Chicago’s Thompson Center. Instead, the activists strive to highlight what is there now as a means for advocating for continued access moving forward.
“Our goal is whatever happens to the building, whoever owns it in the future, that it remains publicly accessible and a resource for all of us,” adds Solomon.
Upcoming tours of the Thompson Center will be announced on the group’s website.