Architects, preservationists and random passersby gathered outside of the James R. Thompson Center Tuesday, calling for the state of Illinois to declare the building a historical landmark instead of selling it to the highest bidder or tearing it down.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has long advocated for selling the Thompson Center, named after Gov. Jim Thompson and designed by German American architect Helmut Jahn in 1985, commissioned as an office building for state government despite its soaring atrium and unusual color scheme.
But years of deferred maintenance and soaring utility bills have created a headache for state official, and Rauner began floating the idea to sell off the property soon after taking office four years ago.
The FY 2019 state budget relies on $270 million in estimated profits from selling the city-block sized property at Randolph and LaSalle streets in the heart of the Loop, though no plans to do so have materialized.
Ralliers made clever signs and even brought “SOS” letter balloons; the initials stand for Preservation Chicago’s rallying cry, “Save Our Starship.”
Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller told The Daily Line that Tuesday’s event was the “first step” in raising awareness that the building is in danger, even though the group hasn’t launched a petition or started to raise funds to save the building.
Miller said he hopes the issue gains traction in the governor’s race, but said his group’s efforts to reach the campaign of Democrat JB Pritzker have not been successful.
It is not just the unique building that’s at risk when Rauner and others talk about selling or demolishing the Thompson Center, but pointed to both the outdoor space and the “Monument With Standing Beast” sculpture by French artist Jean Dubuffet in the plaza, Miller said.
“This is a great public space,” Miller said. “These plazas and this sculpture were created first on the Daley Center and then on this site just to open up the Loop to sunlight and air — quality of life issues — make this a culturally rich experience to walk through the Loop, versus a dark canyon of buildings where you only see sunlight at 12 noon.”
Miller led the crowd in chants of “Salmon pink and baby blue, Thompson Center, we love you!” and “Civic center, public space sent to us from outer space!”
Tuesday’s rally attracted several dozen people, including Ron Tevonian, a docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, who had made a sign carrying a sign that said “Jahn turns me on.”
Tevonian said he’s not opposed to the state selling the Thompson Center, as long as the next owner plans to restore the building.
“If the governor thinks, ‘I don’t want to put state offices there anymore,’ he has that prerogative,” Tevonian said. “Our issue is the proper use and preservation of the building, which currently doesn’t seem that impressive because it’s $100 million behind in maintenance costs. But if the building can be brought back to its former glory, there’s a variety of ways in which it can be used profitably.”
The state’s treatment of the building has become a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” in that the state allowed the building to become dilapidated, “and then you look at it and say look at that mess,” Tevonian said/
Also on hand for the rally Tuesday was drag performer and Chicago native Shea Couleé, a finalist on season nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Couleé danced in the plaza to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and “Think,” and afterward addressed the crowd.
“We have to get this building landmarked so that we can keep this a part of the public, part of the community so that people can continue to gather here, make wonderful communion between all of us,” Couleé said. “Because if not, this will be privatized and we will not have the freedom to come here and gather the way we do today.”