State panel opposes Pritzker, backs historic Thompson Center list
A state advisory board opposed to the Pritzker administration on Friday approved a measure that could save the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop from destruction by a developer.
The Illinois Advisory Council on Historic Places has recommended that the long-standing Chicago State Government Center be proposed for the National Register of Historic Places. The state is leaving the 36-year-old building, designed by the late Helmut Jahn, and putting it up for sale.
The council’s recommendation came on a 10-2 vote and is not binding on Governor JB Pritzker or the agencies he heads. The question now lands on the desk of Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, who is the state’s most senior official in historic preservation. If the state does not name the building for the national registry, an outside group can do so.
Callahan’s agency and the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which manages state-owned property, formally oppose any recognition of the building, which state officials have repeatedly called of “oversized, obsolete and expensive”. The state could realize a higher sale price for its entire block at 100 W. Randolph St. if a buyer could build a skyscraper there.
Listing the building with the National Trust would not prevent demolition, but it would make the owner who preserves it eligible for tax breaks covering 20% of certain costs. Potential buyers have until August 16 to submit a proposal to the state.
Preservation groups said the federal listing helps the state by encouraging more buyers. They said the 17-story building, known for its atrium, indoor and outdoor public spaces, and abundant glass, deserves federal recognition as a postmodern icon.
“It’s still puzzled that the state is working so vehemently to prevent this from happening,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois.
Jonathan Solomon, partner at Preservation Futures, said he hoped Pritzker would heed the board’s recommendation. “Politics shouldn’t be part of this process. This is why the council exists as an independent democratic body, ”he said.
Solomon, who advocated for the building at the council meeting, said the federal listing “allows more buyers to be involved and makes the sale more competitive.”
Pritzker’s office made no immediate comment on Friday. A spokeswoman for Callahan said the council vote and related documents will be considered.
The preservation of the building gained new attention with Jahn’s death in May in a bicycle accident near his home in the western suburbs of St. Charles. Pritzker then praised Jahn’s influence on architecture around the world, but said, “The James R. Thompson Center was a building that never lived up to his creative genius.”
This view has now been challenged by a 15-member council that includes historians, architects and other professionals.
The state has purchased a building at 555 W. Monroe St. for $ 73.25 million and is consolidating its offices there. He said the move would save $ 21.3 million in annual rent and operating costs downtown.
City Council changed the zoning of the Thompson Center to allow for a high-rise apartment building on the site. Jahn and conservationists had drawn up plans to add a tower to part of the building, preserving its atrium and glass walls.
Philip Castillo, executive vice president of architectural firm Jahn, said he is promoting the adaptive reuse of the building. “It is one of the most amazing urban spaces in the United States,” he said, adding, “Space has never been used to its full potential.”
He said the company had been contacted by a developer interested in submitting a proposal to the state. Castillo declined to name the developer.