What To Do With the Thompson Center? Part 1: SCB’s John Lahey

The Thompson Center

The Thompson Center, recently listed on the Endangered Species List

In October Governor Bruce Rauner announced plans for the State of Illinois to sell the Thompson Center (100 West Randolph Street), possibly for demolition and redevelopment.   We spent the last few weeks talking to a dozen Chicago architects and developers about what they think of the building and its predicament.

Today we hear from John Lahey, Design Principal at Chicago architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

John Lahey: It’s funny, when I was a young architect at C.F. Murphy Associates I was there when we did the State Office Building. I worked on it very little, but one of my buddies was working on it, and it wasn’t that big of an office so I saw [the work] every day. It was such an exciting time, and an exciting building. And being at that office, which became Murphy Jahn and then Jahn, was exciting as well.

Solomon Cordwell Buenz C.E.O. John Lahey with a model of Block37

Solomon Cordwell Buenz C.E.O. John Lahey with a model of Block37

This building was so energized. It was at a time of change and it’s notable for embodying that great energy and spirit of the age (there’s probably some German word for this) and done with great optimism. And I have to say, that interior space was very exciting.

But, in the end it’s really not that great a building. OK, there was energy. It represents an era. That’s all. And if it was some smaller site somewhere we could go and see it, that would be nice. But this is a huge block in the city of Chicago; in the middle of this vibrant, living city. People talk about reusing it. I just don’t think it would be that successful. And you’ve got to think there’s that [building] there. But it’s occupying this whole area. And what else could be there that could be even better?

There’s some great buildings in Chicago that you say, “This is just a really great building. And we want to keep it, and it’s still functional.” But this building [the Thompson Center] even when it was just done, it just didn’t…

When we were working at Murphy at that time, we were all just so excited and so committed, and Helmut [Jahn], he was just making everything different. He was just shaking it up. But you know, some of the stuff we did at that time, it didn’t turn out all that great.

The Thompson Center

The Thompson Center

Now, he has subsequently done some really very finely crafted buildings that are great. But this isn’t one of them.

I would say, if someone has a really great re-use for it, let ’em have at it. But I would be a little skeptical. And I think we ought to be prepared to say “Hey, that’s great. But you know, this is too important a place in our city to hang on to [a building] that doesn’t work so well.”

It is hard to imagine what it could be. It’s not a good residential building. it’s got everything going wrong. I think you could sell it. The state’s got some big problems. This isn’t some Frank Lloyd Wright house on a residential lot in a town. This is a really big part of Chicago. And do you require that it stays? I think that a lot of people would agree that as a building, it’s not that great a building.

Editor: So this is not a Chicago Stock Exchange moment.

Lahey:  No. And those buildings were significant historically. They were still viable. And they were some of the best pieces of those architects’ work. I mean, the Stock Exchange with Sullivan — I mean, that’s a big deal. This is not one of those.

I remember some people didn’t want to tear down the Sherman House. Maybe they were right. That’s what was there before.

If someone wanted to tear down the Daley Center, I’d say no. That is I think such an artful building, done with a high level of quality and has stood the test of time.

Christmas tree in the Thompson CenterI’m not saying it’s terrible and needs to be removed or it’s a blight. But I think they’ve got to do something now, it’s in such bad shape, and it looks so cheap and so beat up. And it is kind of an awkward form; a clumsy form when you look at it.

How much is that site worth when you strip off the skin, and gut the inside and you’ve got the frame there so you can do something else? How much is that worth versus just clearing the site.

So, I’m on record as saying — Sorry, Helmut — that it’s not of the quality that you would go out of your way to save.

It would be great if the state sold it, but then zoned it, or required that a great building go there. Really made it into the opportunity for something spectacular to happen there.

Editor: Do you think the state has that ability, or would it just end up being a building designed by a committee.

Lahey: I think it would be a private building. The state should just take the money. If the state rips it down to build another state building, then forget it. Don’t even bother.

There’s a whole thing with the LaSalle Street corridor. I do wonder if you could build on half the [block], and then have some park or plaza. I know there’s some plazas nearby — First National Bank [Chase Tower], the Civic Center [Daley Plaza], Federal Center. But to have a different kind of one that’s maybe green or something. You wouldn’t want it on LaSalle because it’s got that streetwall, so maybe on the east side.

To me, what would be great is if there was maybe a park on the south side, and then the rest was zoned at 2,000 feet and an F.A.R. of like 40. You could say, this is a site. it’s big enough. it’s in a great civic spot, and a building that height is going to be high quality. You cannot build a cheap building that tall.

I think it would be a great opportunity not only for them to sell it, but to really allow something extraordinary that would make the site more valuable.

Location: 100 West Randolph Street, The Loop

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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