Elizabeth Blasius affectionately calls the James R. Thompson Center the “post-modern people's palace.”
Blasius is one of the founders of the James R. Thompson Center Historical Society. Jonathan Solomon, AJ LaTrace, and Blasius are raising awareness about the architectural significance of the 17-story, Helmut Jahn-designed building that opened in 1985. Their advocacy is especially pressing now as the state of Illinois moves closer to selling the building.
Putting a 1.2 million square foot building on the market
Last April, the Illinois Senate passed a bill allowing the state to sell the Thompson Center. Talks of unloading the building started before Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker took office this year. The bill was first introduced in 2017 when Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was still in office. But, Rauner couldn’t get it passed as he battled the state legislature over a budget impasse.
Pritzker seems poised to push the sale across the finish line, announcing in August a request for proposals to help sell the Thompson Center. According to the request from the Illinois Department of Central Management Services — the agency that owns and runs the building — the winning bid will provide “project management, financial analysis and real estate advisory services.” The winner will also have to relocate about 2,200 state employees to an alternate site.
Decades of disrepair
The state estimates the price tag of deferred maintenance of the Thompson Center at about $326 million. That’s according to a report compiled in 2016 by a third party. Some of the issues identified in the report include replacements for freight elevators, fire alarms and the HVAC system. Replacing the HVAC system would cost $60-80 million, according to the report. It identifies the technology as more than 30 years old.
So who’s to blame for accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars in problems?
“I believe, you know, it started after the Edgar administration,” Gary Skoien answered. Skoien was executive director of Illinois’ Capital Development Board (CDB) in 1985 when the building, originally known as the State of Illinois Center, opened. The CDB is the construction management arm for the state. Skoien was appointed to the board by Gov. James R. Thompson.
“There are these columns out on the street and they had this beautiful granite on them,” Skoien said. “The only way the granite would stay is if every few years, like you’re maintaining anything else, you caulked it,” he added. “They didn’t even do that.”
Skoien’s former boss Thompson was more blunt, saying Governors Rod Blagojevich, Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner, “absolutely neglected the Thompson Center, let it get run down, didn’t repair, didn’t replace.”
“To let it just fall apart, is really kind of criminal,” Skoien added.
Thompson said the disrepair is embarrassing. “What must people who have contacts with state government on a frequent basis think when they walk in?" the former governor asked rhetorically. “That’s the original rug in that building. It’s very sad.”
State’s auditor general found problems early on—and they’re still here
In a report released in March 1986, less than a year after the ribbon cutting on the State of Illinois Center, the state’s auditor general outlined a series of problems that stalled construction of the building and created cost overruns. The report takes aim at the Capital Development Board’s management of the building’s construction and issued 18 recommendations.
The recommendations are pretty technical, but mostly assert that CDB needed to better monitor the progress of the various contractors, and issue more stringent benchmarks.
One issue that recurs throughout is the inability to control the excessive heat in the building. “During the summer, indoor temperatures ranged in the mid to upper 80s and in some areas frequently reached into the 90s,” the report stated.
It said the problem stemmed from the unconventional air conditioning system, which the auditor general asserted, “complicates the debugging process.” In a survey of 39 state agencies working in the building at the time, the top two reasons for “hampered efficiency” were temperature and noise.
Skoien, perhaps not surprisingly, said he doesn’t remember 33-year-old report.
He conceded that the project ran about $15 million dollars over budget; the final budget was $172 million.
Now a real estate developer in the private sector, Skoien said cost overruns and schedule problems have a lot to do with how the state and other government bodies have to do business. “You have to bid out plumbing. You have to bid out electrical. And then are basically assigned to a general contractor who was bid as well,” Skoien said. “But, there’s no economic tie between all of that,” he added.
Basically, Skoien said, it’s too many cooks in the kitchen.
The noise some state employees mentioned as an issue in the early years can be attributed to the open atrium, which is still a distraction for some of the state employees who work at the Thompson Center.
That’s according to Ayse Kalaycioglu, chief operating officer of Central Management Services, the state agency that runs the building. “Between the smell of what’s coming from the food court, the noise, it’s obviously not a very effective work environment,” Kalaycioglu said of the building where she and her staff work.
She listed some of the building’s other issues: “The fire alarm is functional, but it doesn’t meet today’s code requirements.” And, more than 30 years later, Kalaycioglu said employees still flag how hot the building gets. “We actually had an incident in the summer, one of the system was down and it was getting really hot and we had to bring in portable units to cool it down,” Kalaycioglu said.
Jahn’s critics and fans
From the beginning, the Thompson Center was misunderstood, Skoien said. But, he said his former boss was immediately drawn to Jahn’s open atrium concept. “Jim Thompson was a connoisseur of art and architecture and all things like that,” Skoien said. Thompson, Skoien added, rejected competing designs that replicated standard, glass office buildings.
Today, with the building’s future uncertain, Thompson lamented: “It’s hard to see something that’s contributed to an important part of post modern architecture in Chicago be threatened.”
The James R. Thompson Center Historical Society agrees.
The group is leading free, lunchtime tours of the building to draw attention to the architecture, rather than only focus on the building’s problems.
“The reality of the situation is the building is in disrepair,” LaTrace, one of the group’s founders, said recently during a tour. LaTrace said the city has been leaning toward mega developments like Lincoln Yards and The 78.
“It seems like we’re at a level where this site would be a similar situation,” LaTrace said. He argued that as a public building, with a food court and very busy transit station, a mega development could threaten accessibility.
“This is a public asset, this is a public building. Frankly, I think we all believe that there needs to be more discussion about not only what happens to this site, but how much say does the public really have?” LaTrace posed.
Asked if the state was leaning toward demolition, Kalaycioglu from Central Management Services responded, “We’re not promoting one way or another.” Kalayciouglu said the process of seeking a buyer is taking the public into consideration. “We’re just asking for the best position for the taxpayers and the state of Illinois,” she added.
Four companies have submitted bids to project manage the Thompson Center’s necessary repairs and prepare the building for the real estate market. The winner will be announced next month.
The next tour by the James R. Thompson Center Historical Society is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 31. You can register for the tour here.
Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.