Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a great little poem for the official opening of what was then called the State of Illinois Building, on May 6, 1985. It was part of her job; as the state’s poet laureate, she’d been asked to produce something in honor of the occasion.
Thousands of people had crowded into the 1.2 million-square-foot structure, getting a first look at its jaw-dropping 17-story atrium. They filled every seat that had been set up on the main floor and lined the dizzying successive rings of walkways that rose above it toward a towering circular skylight.
Republican governor James R. Thompson, who’d commissioned the building, was there, along with the designer—adopted Chicagoan and rising international architect Helmut Jahn. There was music and speeches, and then Brooks—an unpretentious woman, dwarfed by the monumental scene—got up to read.
I was also there because of my job. Unable to land a staff slot at a newspaper (then as now, the city was awash in unemployed journalists), I was working for a public relations firm contracted to help launch the building. I’d written a marketing piece for it, a brochure that described the then-innovative intent to create a multiuse facility and Jahn’s sources of inspiration: “the grand rotundas of older public buildings” and “the busy central plazas of European villages.”
But the truth was, I knew more about poetry than I did about architecture, and Brooks’s poem, concluding with a call to “All little people” to “outwit / big Building boasting,” sounded to me like a thunderclap. Standing there, surrounded by the state’s highest officials and their pinstripe-patronage pals in the audience, she had managed to stick a finger in their eye.
I waited for the insult to sink in, and could hardly believe it when she got a nice round of applause.
So much for the power of poetry.
This building, with its stout, truncated exterior—like a fat, glassy slice of pie with a cylindrical dollop on top—had already inspired numerous UFO-landing jokes, while its budget overruns, eventually doubling the cost to about $173 million, were the subject of widespread criticism. When those god-awful salmon-pink panels went up on the outside of it, it was pretty clear that I was working the job from hell.
Except for this: Chicago Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp, one of the first to get a look inside, had already declared it “the most spectacular building ever constructed in the Loop.”
“Its interior is no less than breathtaking,” Gapp had written.
Later, when problems with its heating and cooling systems were well-known, Gapp, who never liked the exterior, stuck to his guns about the inside. Speculating about the inconsequence of such flaws to posterity, he made a heady comparison: “[W]ho talks about how the inside of the Pantheon still gets wet every time it rains?” he asked.
Those words came to mind recently, when another Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, stood where the opening ceremony took place and announced that the building, known since 1992 as the Thompson Center, would be sold and likely demolished. Never mind that, despite the state’s neglectful stewardship, the building’s been largely successful at what it set out to be: a multiuse hub for a genuinely diverse population.
And forget about Chicago’s ambitions as a center for architectural tourism. What governor, in a city that’s all about that kind of “big Building boasting,” tears down the Pantheon? v