State officials offer last goodbye to former Thompson Center as renovations begin

Postmodern building sold in 2022 after causing state headaches over maintenance costs

Gov. JB Pritzker speaks at the kickoff of the renovation of the James R. Thompson Center.

CHICAGO – State officials kicked off the private renovation of the building which once served as the state government’s Chicago headquarters.

The James R. Thompson Center, as it was known under state ownership, was sold in 2022 to a development firm that is renovating the building for its to-be occupant, Google. In exchange for the building, the state received $30 million and a $75 million office building on LaSalle Street in Chicago.

The Silicon Valley-based tech giant intends to use the building for its Chicago offices after the $280 million renovation project is complete, which is expected to take several years.

As of Monday, construction fencing had been erected, debris littered parts of the building’s 17-story atrium and parts of the building’s first-floor curtain wall were already gone.

“It already looks better than when we owned it,” Gov. JB Pritzker quipped on Monday.

The Thompson Center, built in 1985, gained a reputation for being difficult to maintain. At the time of its sale, the governor’s office said the state spent $17 million annually on the building due to “operational inefficiencies” and that bringing it up to standard would have cost more than $325 million.

The building, which housed offices for the secretary of state, governor, attorney general and other state agencies, was known for being an unusual and, at times, uncomfortable place to work due to its open design and difficult temperature regulation.

“I can guarantee you there is no one more excited about today than me,” Raven DeVaughn, head of the state’s Department of Central Management Services, said Monday. “Because I know now that when I have a property management issue at CMS, it is not the HVAC system at the Thompson Center.”

The renovation design is being handled by Jahn, the architecture firm founded by the building’s original architect, Helmut Jahn, and now led by his son Evan Jahn. Renderings released by Google in December show that it will retain its atrium, although its ground-floor colonnade will be redesigned.

The building will also be LEED Platinum certified, said Karen Sauder, Google’s Chicago site lead.

Over its 39-year history, the building has gained fans despite its operational problems and polarizing design. The postmodern building featured uncommon colors meant to evoke the red, white and blue of the U.S. flag, new-age materials, and a design that radically reinterpreted traditional elements of other civic buildings.

Paul Gapp, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, called it “the most cerebral, the most abstract, yet easily the most spectacular building ever constructed in the Loop” when it opened in 1985.

Architectural historian Elizabeth Blasius co-founded Preservation Futures, a Chicago-based preservation firm, after her experience as part of the James R. Thompson Center Historical Society. Blasius was part of the team behind a 2020 push to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places.

“You have this really nice encapsulation of an era of architecture, when governments were sort of building really grand public buildings,” Blasius said. “James R. Thompson, who championed the design of the Thompson Center, was a Republican administration that wasn’t really afraid to spend money on a building that was really supposed to say something very clear about state government’s presence in Chicago.”

Blasius noted that while her efforts to grant the building legal protections through either a national or local historic designation were unsuccessful, she views the current project as a “win for preservation,” citing the early looks at the renovation plans and the fact that building demolition is often harmful for the environment.

Still, she will be watching what the building’s developers and Google do with what was once public space, such as the building’s plaza, food court and other public amenities.

While Sauder reaffirmed Monday that passengers will continue to have access to the train station that runs through the building once Google moves in, much of the public’s use of the building remains uncertain under private ownership.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Andrew Adams - Capitol News Illinois

Andrew Adams is a state government reporter for Capitol News Illinois