Monday, April 10, 2017

Thompson Center: Will we sell it, lose it? Or figure out a way to forget it

My father has devoted his professional life to architecture and construction and has had a hand in the erection of several prominent Chicago downtown structures.
Old state building will live longer than Thompson Center

Which is how I can claim to have set foot inside the building now known as the Thompson Center (although it once also carried the brand of State of Illinois Center) long before its official opening in 1985.

HE WORKED FOR one of the companies involved in the building’s erection (keep your silly giggle to yourself) and I remember the day he took me along to the construction site.

I still remember walking around the grounds (while wearing a helmet) and checking out the development of a frame for what is a 16-story building. I even got to walk along a steel beam for a few feet without seriously injuring myself. Yes, I'm pretty sure that things are more stringent these days and somebody would be in serious trouble if my father permitted me to try to do that today.

I also can remember my father taking me along during the renovation of the Chicago Hilton & Towers Hotel (and seeing the luxury rooms stripped down to the drywall) and to the dedication ceremonies for the building we will always think of as the Sears Tower – the original Mayor Daley being present is my lasting memory.

But in my mind, that one day at Clark and Randolph at what was yet to become the state government building in Chicago sticks in my mind the most. And is a large part of the reason why the Thompson Center has always been a building of significance in Chicago. To me, at least.

WHICH IS WHY a part of me is astounded at the negative reputation the structure has developed (other than that some people will feel compelled to whine about anything). And at reports that the building that has barely been with us for a third of a century is endangered. The former state government building in Chicago is approaching a century of age, and no one is talking about tearing down the Bilandic Building (as it's now known).

Gov. Bruce Rauner has made it clear he’d just as soon be rid of the structure, claiming state government would somehow make money off its sale and demolition. Although there also is a sense he thinks that doing away with a Chicago base for state government would reduce the Democratic Party influence over the state.

Because there are those people who get all worked up that Springfield isn’t treated as the be-all-and-end-all of the state of Illinois. Which makes this yet another issue that Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, quarrel over.
Does 'Big Jim' need new namesake building?

The building’s future also came up last week when the Landmarks Illinois group issued its list for this year of historic structures that are in danger of disappearing.

THE BUILDING COULD be lost because of the state officials who don’t think it worth maintaining, and the group said, “Demolition as part of a sale devalues the civic and cultural advances displayed in (architect) Helmut Jahn’s groundbreaking post-modern design and the opportunities for a development that could integrate the building.”

Personally, I always thought there was something intriguing about the blue-and-salmon color scheme and the outer shell of the building. Its shape stands out amidst the landscape of downtown Chicago. Nobody would mistake the Thompson Center for any other building.

Although from the inside, the building can appear to be a bit shrill and sometimes cheaply constructed. And sound does tend to echo about the building, making it possible for people on the upper floors to hear the ruckus of those who stop off in the basement concourse level to check out the mass of fast food available there.

The latter observations were ones I made in later years when, while working for the now-defunct City News Bureau, I was once a reporter-type person assigned to the press room that used to exist on the building’s ninth floor.

I ONCE LEANED on a wall in just such a way that the drywall collapsed – and a palm-sized hole in the wall was developed. Although I have to admit that when state Central Management Services crews found out, they quickly repaired the damage.

So what is destined to happen to the structure? Will it merely become a part of a list including the Sherman House hotel of what used to exist across the street from Chicago City Hall?

Thompson Center's moment of glory?
Will future generations watch the 1986 film “Running Scared” (starring actors Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as two of the most unconvincing Chicago cops you'll ever see) and wonder how anyone could dream up the scenes (cocaine bags being dropped from 16 stories high onto the floor of the rotunda) shot at the Thompson Center?

And what will become of Monument with Standing Beast – as in the DuBuffet sculpture whose odd appearance has long confounded people as they enter the structure where “the people’s business” is done in the Second City. Perhaps it will get historic landmark status -- reminding people of what once was at the site long after the structure has been demolished and turned into just another generic high-rise building


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