Should We Trash or Save the Thompson Center?

The James R. Thompson Center is only thirty years old, but Governor Bruce Rauner announced in the fall of 2015 that he wants it sold and demolished. Just this month, in January of 2017, he floated the idea of a 115-story skyscraper taking its place. That raises a question for us Chicagoans to consider: should we trash or save the Thompson Center? I’ll dive into both sides and let you decide.

The Thompson Center has been controversial since its construction. Governor Thompson, who it’s named after, envisioned it as an architectural expression of the transparency of modern government.

The architect, Helmut Jahn, expressed this transparency through a very 1980’s post-modern structure of glass. A soaring central atrium dominates the interior. Most folks in downtown are probably most familiar with the DMV in the basement. From the outside, it’s garish-looking to some and delightful to others. Personally, I can never make up my mind about it, though my wife always refers to it as “that spaceship building.” Guests on our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour are always intrigued when they spot it across Daley Plaza.

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The amazing and aggravating atrium of the Thompson Center. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Let’s Trash the Thompson Center

From a purely practical standpoint, the Thompson Center has always been a massive headache. In 2015 Chicago Magazine wrote an article asking “How Bad Is It to Actually Work in the Thompson Center?” Pretty freaking awful, apparently.

Cost-cutting measures and bad planning made the Thompson Center a rotten workplace from the start. The glare inside the building is often harsh because the windows are single-pane and un-insulated. Even worse, the building cannot maintain a comfortable temperature. The heat escapes in the winter and the sun’s glare overwhelms the air-conditioning in the summer.

Other issues abound. Special noise-blocking panels had to be installed because of noise from the elevators. The offices originally had open floor plans (remember the transparency idea?), but were eventually divvied up with cheap plywood barriers. Even worse, the carpets are apparently held together by duct tape and insect infestation is rampant.

Even worse, the smells from the food court in the basement waft through the whole building. It’s unsurprising that some powerful figures, like Speaker of the Illinois House Mike Madigan, have decamped other buildings nearby. For all its visual impact and high-flying ideals, it sounds like the Thompson Center fails many of the basic functions we expect of a modern building.

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Is its unique architecture a good enough reason to save the Thompson Center? Image via Wikimedia

“Let’s Save the Thompson Center”

Despite all those issues, a concerted effort is underway to save the Thompson Center. Preservation Chicago listed the building in its “Chicago Seven” for 2016. In fact, every other entry on their list is decades older than the Thompson Center. Their argument is that the Thompson Center helped make the reputation of its architect, Helmut Jahn, who is now world-famous and still based in Chicago. Knowing that, it makes sense to save one of his earliest projects.

A case can made for saving the Thompson Center based on the value of architectural and aesthetic diversity. As it stands, the architectural styles of Daniel Burnham and Mies van der Rohe dominated much of downtown Chicago. Shouldn’t that make us value the buildings that do something different?

The Thompson Center stands boldly apart from both traditions. Its one of the few major buildings in downtown built in the Postmodern architectural tradition. Even if I don’t love it, I can appreciate that it’s jaunty colors and unmistakable shape make the Thompson Center unique. That atrium is such a beast to work within, but it’s also a rare expression of openness in civic architecture. Grasping that, I can’t help but sort of love it as a rebuttal to the brooding projection of power we see from City Hall and the Daley Center.

Are these enough reasons to save the Thompson Center though? Is historical preservation more important than financial and economic progress? I’ll leave that up to you.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

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