Interior of James R. Thompson Center atrium looking up; drawing of the proposed new atrium
Current interior atrium of the James R. Thompson Center; rendering of the proposed new atrium Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Courtesy of JAHN Architecture, Inc.

Everybody knows, especially at this season of the year, it’s a bad idea to look a gift horse in the mouth.

But what if he opens it? What if he flashes you a great big horsey smile? And you just can’t look away fast enough?

I’m asking because we got a wonderful gift last week, when Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the winning proposal for the purchase of the James R. Thompson Center.  

Over the last year, as the fate of the building hung in the balance and its vaunted architect, Helmut Jahn, met a violent accidental death, the Thompson Center’s been a subject of concern. It’s not COVID, climate change, or guns on the street, but the sale was a close call. Only two proposals were submitted. The bid not chosen, it turns out, would have demolished the 1.2-million-square-foot, 36-year-young building and replaced it with a two-plus-million-square-foot tower.

But Chicago has a forest of imposing skyscrapers, and nothing else like this squat concoction of glass and steel that looks from the outside like a spaceship docked in the heart of the Loop, and reveals, on the inside, the city’s most vertiginous and spectacular atrium.  

The National Trust for Historic Preservation calls it “Chicago’s foremost example of grandly scaled Postmodernism”; it’s the building that put Jahn on the international map, and the inspiration for his famous Sony Center in Berlin.

If the alternate proposal had been chosen—poof! Once again, in the city whose claim to fame is its architecture, a landmark (not yet landmarked!) would have vanished. It was a nail-biter for preservationists and anyone who cares about Chicago’s future.

So the announcement that the Pritzker administration, which had been acting like it couldn’t wait to dump this “oversized, outdated, and expensive” behemoth, had selected a proposal that will save the building was joyful tidings.

JRTC Holdings, an entity created by Chicago-based developer Michael W. Reschke (his Prime Group developed projects like the Citadel Center and 77 W. Wacker), will purchase and redevelop the building; the architect on the job will be Helmut Jahn’s own firm, JAHN. And some state offices will remain there—the state has committed to purchase about 30 percent of the renovated space. That’s an arguably good thing, because Jahn designed the largely transparent structure to embody the ideal of open and accessible government; the conical cap on its skylit atrium is a nod to traditional government center domed design, in particular, the massive Federal Building that once stood at Dearborn and Adams.

A lot of big numbers were thrown around. The developer will pay $70 million to buy the building, and is planning to spend roughly $280 million on the renovation. The state will pay $148 million for its space, but, according to Pritzker, will save $800 million over time, including $20 million a year for the next 30 years in operating costs and rent for other offices it’s been leasing. If anyone explained why the state was estimating repair costs at $325 million (ballooning to $525 million by 2026), but the developer can gut and redo it for $280 million, I haven’t heard it.

But no one in the preservation camp is quibbling about money right now; with the deal slated to close this summer, eye on the prize is the watchword. “We’re thrilled that Prime Group has stepped up to the plate,” is what Landmarks Illinois’s director of advocacy Lisa DiChiera told me. “We have this victory and we need to embrace it.” Preservation Chicago executive director Ward Miller echoed her sentiments. “We’d like to see the building landmarked,” Miller told me, but “Let’s take a moment to celebrate.”

Miller notes that since the Thompson Center was built on the site of the Sherman House, there’s precedent for a hotel as part of the project, and that there could be financial incentives in the form of tax credits for preservation of important interior details.  

But just a word about the teeth revealed in that big horsey smile. In what we can see of the interior in the renderings displayed last week, the atrium looks like it’s been whitewashed, wiping away not only the often-derided coral and aqua color scheme, but the quality that actually makes the space spectacular—its dynamic, latticework pattern of steel, glass, and light. Stepping from the flat plane of the Thompson Center plaza into that swirling grid, with its towering profusion of detail, is a mind-bending visual shock.

The interior rendering, on the other hand, looks heavy, sterile, and static. Dabs of greenery won’t fix that, but maybe JAHN will.