Pritzker moves to sell Thompson Center
Landmarks Illinois urges state to take steps toward preservation
By Ted Cox
As the governor moves forward on attempts to sell the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago, preservationists are urging the state to take steps to retain and repurpose the building even if sold.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Tuesday what his administration called “an important step forward in the sale of the James R. Thompson Center.” The governor basically began the process to hire a consultant to offer “an array of project management and technical expertise to generate the best value from the sale for the state of Illinois.”
“Selling the Thompson Center will help to build a more efficient state government," Pritzker said in a statement. "This is long overdue, and I look forward to moving forward to benefit our taxpayers.”
But prominent preservationist groups urged the state to include plans for retaining and repurposing the building even in the early steps toward selling it.
“Corporations continue to migrate to Chicago from suburbs and beyond, and we believe the Thompson Center presents itself as a desirable reuse option for corporate offices and many other uses,” said Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, in a statement released Wednesday. “We urge the Pritzker administration to include our re-envisioning study … to ensure that the Thompson Center may shine as the one-of-a-kind postmodern marvel that it is.”
Landmarks Illinois placed the Thompson Center on its annual list of the Most Endangered Historic Places in the state in May for the third straight year. That built on a “Thompson Center Reimagined” study the group released last year, which included a proposed “new tower, with a footprint of approximately 13,000 square feet, … developed on the southwest corner with hotel uses on the lower floors and residential on the upper floors.”
Landmarks Illinois is requesting that the state at least include that study in its request for proposals to find a consultant to aid the sale, and it was backed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which included the Thompson Center earlier this year in its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
“Millions of people visit Chicago every year to experience its diverse architectural landscape, a testament to the city’s longstanding commitment to preservation and innovative design,” said Jennifer Sandy, associate field director for the trust. “Now that many modern and postmodern buildings like the Thompson Center are at risk, Chicago can again demonstrate its leadership on a new generation of buildings worthy of preservation and reuse. Breathing new life into the Thompson Center — not throwing it away — is the right thing to do economically, environmentally, and architecturally.”
Originally called the State of Illinois Center when it opened in 1985, the 17-story building, designed by architect Helmut Jahn, was renamed for former Gov. James Thompson in 1993. According to the Governor’s Office, it encompasses approximately 1.2 million square feet of “enclosed area,” including its signature atrium rising the entire height of the building and including “a cylindrical skylight, 75 feet above the roof level.” Pritzker’s news release on the building added: “The sky-lit rotunda is 160 feet in diameter and is surrounded by 16 floors of open office space.”
But it fell into disrepair with state funding cuts dating back to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who originally proposed selling it 15 years ago. The General Assembly moved to sell it in under former Gov. Rauner, but they could never settle on a process. According to Pritzker’s office, a 2016 study estimated it would take more than $300 million to bring the structure into good repair, and it’s “also larger than necessary and costly to operate with annual operating expenses exceeding $17 million.”
“The property is inefficient and expensive to operate,” said Janel Forde, acting director of the state Department of Central Management Services. “The state can achieve significant cost savings by relocating to more optimized space.”
Landmarks Illinois warned, however, that “demolition would be complicated with an existing (Chicago Transit Authority) station on the site, and these costs are anticipated to be no less than $15 million to $20 million.” It added that, even without its proposed tower addition, “the Thompson Center also could qualify for several rehabilitation tax incentives with a qualified rehabilitation if listed in the National Register of Historic Places or locally landmarked.”