In July, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker announced the $105 million sale of the beleaguered James R. Thompson Center to Google, which will use the former state office building as its second Chicago headquarters. The building, designed by the late Helmut Jahn in 1985, has been threatened with demolition since the early aughts, when state officials argued that it was too expensive to maintain and proposed selling it. Saving the building gained traction as a preservationist cause in 2017, when the state government formally put it on the market. In 2019 the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the building as one of the most endangered in the country.
“The Thompson Center is obviously one of Helmut’s iconic statements,” says Phillip Castillo, executive vice president of JAHN, the firm formerly led by Jahn. “It was about transparency in government–whether we want to laugh about that now is another issue.” The 17-story building’s glass exterior, soaring atrium, and exposed structure and circulation pay homage to that ideal, but when it opened in the mid-80s, its bloated price tag ($172 million, nearly double the original budget) drew derision from Chicagoans already critical of the state government’s notorious corruption. Reactions to Jahn’s design, which is marked by a distinctive interior palette of salmon-pink and blue, were mixed.
The Thompson Center is located in the heart of Downtown Chicago. Photo by (vincent desjardins), via Flickr
Over time, the building also proved to be energy-inefficient due to the use of non-insulated glass panels. Workers complained about heat in the summer and cold in the winter, as well as disruptive noise that would float up from the atrium. In 2016, an independent study estimated that the Thompson Center cost $17 million annually to operate and had accrued $326 million in deferred maintenance costs.
Google will work with JAHN and Chicago-based developer Prime Realty Group to make the much-needed renovations to the building without modifying key elements of the design, and plans to open its new offices in 2026. (The deal marks a shift from an earlier proposal in which Prime would purchase the building from the state and the state would retain 30% ownership.) Google Chicago executive Karen Sauders said in a statement posted to the company blog that the renovations would make the center a “class A environmentally friendly office building.” (JAHN and Prime Realty declined to comment on any specific features of the redesign.)
“I started working on how to repurpose this building with Helmut about eight years ago,” says Castillo, who joined the firm in 1979. “We were always interested in how we could transform this building into a present day and future asset.” In 2017, the city pitched the building as a potential site for Amazon’s second headquarters, and in 2018 Jahn flirted with the idea of attaching a supertall skyscraper to its northwest corner. Castillo believes that the present outcome is good news for Jahn’s iconic contribution to downtown Chicago: “These clients and users want to be respectful of the design,” he says.
Preservationists are cautiously celebrating the sale. In the fall of 2019, architectural historian Elizabeth Blasius, architect Jonathan Solomon, and real-estate reporter A.J. LaTrace founded the “Thompson Center Historical Society,” a grass-roots organization that aimed to elevate the cause of what they deemed the “postmodern people’s palace.” The group gave unsanctioned tours of the building’s public spaces, hosted a podcast in its food court, and once held an event with Jahn’s granddaughters where they built and smashed a Thompson Center-shaped piñata.
“We wanted to convey to the public that the building was significant for more than just its architecture,” says Blasius, a co-founder with Solomon of the group Preservation Futures. “It was important to save the building as a transit hub and as a structure with a lot of embodied carbon.”
The group ceased its public activities with the advent of the pandemic, but Blasius and Solomon have been continuing the Historical Society's work on an application to list the Thompson Center on the state and national registers of historic places.The state application passed a vote by the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council last summer, but according to Blasius, the national nomination is currently in administrative limbo at the National Parks Service.
“It's not only a huge win for preservation, but it just seems like the best-case scenario for the building and for the Loop,” says LaTrace, who co-wrote the Thompson Center's original nomination with the group and is now an editor at Business Insider, of the sale. “Private ownership is what it is, but I think it’s clear that Google, as a tech innovator, sees the design value in the building.” (LaTrace is no longer involved with the activities of the Historical Society.)
Blasius hopes that the tech giant will respect the ethos of Jahn’s original design. “The significance of our advocacy efforts were really driven by the fact that the building was publicly accessible,” she says, “I would love to see the atrium be given the same public access when Google owns it as it was during its tenure as a state-owned building.”
Google has not announced the degree to which the building will be publicly accessible but Prime Realty did confirm to RECORD that the CTA station that feeds into the building, one of the busiest in the city, will remain open to the public, even during construction.