Chicago’s Thompson Center Is a Palace for the People

Downtown Chicago’s wonderfully futuristic, bizarre Thompson Center integrates government, business, public art, affordable eating, and public protest space — and it’s currently in danger of demolition. The Thompson Center must be preserved; its architectural spirit is too interesting — and the public space it provides too exceptional — to discard.

The James R. Thompson Center in Chicago, Illinois. (Raymond Boyd / Getty Images)

Three days after moving to Chicago in 2017, I attended a Labor Day rally. We marched from a McDonald’s on the city’s West Side, where we’d rallied with workers from the Fight for $15 campaign, all the way downtown to the plaza in front of the James R. Thompson Center. That plaza, Jonathan Solomon — cofounder with Elizabeth Blasius of Preservation Futures, the Chicago-based preservation firm working to get the Thompson Center listed on the National Register of Historic Places — tells me, is one of only three outdoor spaces in downtown Chicago where you can protest without a permit (the other two being Daley Plaza and Federal Plaza).

Last month, after a few years of debate about what to do with it, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker put the Thompson Center up for sale. Neglected for years after its construction in 1985, the Thompson Center’s spans of glass and metal would take $300 million for needed repairs and retrofitting. It’s too much of a burden for the state, Pritzker seems to believe. Let someone else deal with it. In fact, let someone else pay me to deal with this problem.

The Thompson Center is on Randolph Street between Clark and LaSalle on the northern edge of Chicago’s downtown “Loop.” It sits far from the curb, and its asymmetrical form looks like someone hacked a chunk off a giant glass cone. It would seem almost like a spaceship descending onto land were it not for the neoclassical-nodding colonnade that extends the building’s hand out to passersby, making it marginally more approachable. It’s peak postmodern architecture, full of tongue-in-cheek references to architectural eras gone by: the colonnade, the giant oculus at the top of the atrium, the Campidoglio-inspired tile pattern on the floors, even its hyper-reflective glass allows architectural history — the images of the surrounding buildings — to be read on its surface.

Immense atrium of the James R. Thompson Center. (Kenneth C. Zirkel / Wikimedia Commons)

Postmodernism, as Fredric Jameson famously quipped, was the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” In architecture, in particular architecture designed for urban and public contexts, postmodernism was the aesthetic result of grappling with twin pressures: on the one hand, a desire to depart from the clean-lined forms of modernism and, on the other, to design buildings that represented “traditional” values through their form.

The recently deceased Helmut Jahn, who designed the Thompson Center, no doubt grappled with these pressures himself. But the Thompson Center’s architecture is more than just surface treatment — it’s also the result of Jahn’s desire to make transparent the inner workings of government, to bring the government to its public. That’s why, in addition to being a government office building, it is also home to: a gigantic food court (one of the only places in the Loop where you can get a truly affordable lunch), a Supercuts, a Chicago Transit Authority station, and the Department of Motor Vehicles. While no single building can fix democracy simply by shoving government offices and commercial spaces together, it can make the experience of city living slightly easier — especially if it has a public indoor space with free WiFi where anyone can sit in the middle of a subzero winter, no questions asked, as the Thompson Center does.

That space has been put to good use. Take the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), for example, which over the last decade has consistently used the Thompson Center as a gathering and rallying space during its multiple strikes. In 2016, the union ended an illegal one-day strike there, with a rally packed with tens of thousands of teachers and supporters. During the 2019 CTU strike, I saw teachers, students, and supporters take breaks from the cold inside the Thompson Center, charge their phones, use the public restrooms, eat meals.

Without a doubt, the Thompson Center plays a vital role in the city’s public life. Now, its fate rests in the hands of the real estate market.

Blasius and Solomon are working on a request to list the Thompson Center on the National Register of Historic Places, although, as Blasius tells me, “the listing is mostly honorary.”

The inside of the James R. Thompson Center. (Mobilus In Mobili / Flickr)

“Unless there is federal money or a federal agency that says they want to do something to this building,” she says, “the building can be knocked down or altered. Right now, the state owns the Thompson Center, so if it is listed, the state would have to adhere to preservation standards. Once it goes into private hands, the listing no longer matters. A private owner of a building on the National Register can do whatever they want.”

What’s worse, Blasius tells me, private developers often seek out landmark status for the financial incentives, such as a tax break that saves twelve years of appreciation on a property and Adopt-A-Landmark funds for rehabilitation, and then still do whatever they want with the building.

“There’s a lot of money in preservation,” Blasius says, “and developers have found that out. They have entire teams of people who look into how to get money for rehabilitating existing buildings.” This means that often buildings end up on local and national landmark registers not necessarily because they are historically or architecturally significant but because a developer has figured out a way to get money for their renovation.

Meanwhile, buildings like the Thompson Center that are still too young (under fifty years old) to have “aged into significance” hang in limbo. In the Thompson Center’s case, Solomon tells me, the building does not fit the “capital-driven or majority narratives about history” that govern mainstream wisdom about whether a building is worth preserving, nor does it “bear the markers of traditional architectural value: it’s not festooned in terracotta; it’s not high modernist; it hasn’t been blessed by the approval of the architectural academy.”

Still, the Thompson Center represented a break with architectural tradition in Chicago. The last major public commission in Chicago before the Thompson Center, the Federal Center, was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in his clean-lined, high modernist style. The two major public commissions in the city after the Thompson Center, O’Hare’s Terminal 1 (incidentally designed by Helmut Jahn) and the Harold Washington Library, are both prime examples of architectural postmodernism.

Like them or not, these buildings give physical form to the particular historical moment in which they were born. For that reason alone, they are worth preserving. In the specific case of the Thompson Center, the building also represents, in Solomon’s words, “a vision of deep integration between government and people’s lives.” And while it’s going to take a lot more than a single building to fully achieve that vision, it would be a tragedy to wipe out that sentiment from the face of Chicago’s urban fabric.

We should preserve the Thompson Center for its futuristic form, for its indoor food court, for its collection of art (including that Jean Dubuffet sculpture on the plaza), for the postmodern legacy that it represents. But, more importantly, we should foster the Thompson Center’s spirit: interesting, high-quality public space — a palace for the people.