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Sale of Chicago’s iconic Thompson Center delayed through 2019

Midwest News Preservation
The 160-foot atrium of Helmut Jahn's 1985 James R. Thompson Center. The State of Illinois has delayed the sale of the structure through 2019. (Rainer Viertlboeck/Courtesy JAHN)
The 160-foot atrium of Helmut Jahn's 1985 James R. Thompson Center. The State of Illinois has delayed the sale of the structure through 2019. (Rainer Viertlboeck/Courtesy JAHN)

The State of Illinois has just signed the James R. Thompson Center up for another year of public service. According to projections introduced in the Illinois Fiscal Policy Report, the state has removed the sale of the Thompson Center from the list of planned sources of revenue for 2019. The report estimates the value of the potential sale to the state to be $300 million.

Culturally and aesthetically contentious since it landed in Chicago’s North Loop in 1985, the Thompson Center, formerly the State of Illinois Building, has become an emblematic figure of the timely realities tied to preserving postmodernism. This challenge has proven traditional historic preservation practices to be ineffective, forcing the field to find new ways to define value for structures that lack the traditional bells and whistles of historic architecture, and putting the field in a situation where collaboration and creativity are key. Thirty years after designing the Thompson Center, architect Helmut Jahn worked with Landmarks Illinois to develop a super tower for a corner of the site on the heels of the Thompson Center’s inclusion into the organization’s yearly list of threatened buildings. In September, Preservation Chicago, working with Starship Chicago filmmaker Nathan Eddy, brought in Shea Couleé of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame for a lunchtime rally to drum up interest in landmarking the structure.

The news of the sale’s delay into 2020 puts the future of the Thompson Center in the hands of governor-elect J.B. Pritzker, who toppled first term incumbent Bruce Rauner in November. While Rauner has been vocal about his desire to sell the Thompson Center, Pritzker has not made any statements regarding the sale of the structure.

Postponing the sale will also make aspects of the Thompson Center the responsibility of Chicago’s next mayor. While the structure is owned by the state, it sits atop a vital matrix of public transit infrastructure that would be inevitably disrupted if the structure changed hands. While outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel has stated that he would block the sale of the Thompson Center because of this, no candidate in the large field of mayoral hopefuls has addressed similar intentions—or any intentions—regarding the structure.

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