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.

save the Thompson Center atrium Chicago
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.

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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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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