What To Do With the Thompson Center? Part 2: FitzGerald Associates

The Thompson Center

The Thompson Center

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 the West Loop architecture firm FitzGerald Associates Architects, which has sympathy for the aging, maligned, and neglected structure in the heart of the Loop. Chairman Pat FitzGerald leads our conversation.

Editor:   So, what would you do with the Thompson Center?

Pat FitzGerald: Reuse it.

Editor:  How so?

FitzGerald: Nobody’s hired us yet, so we don’t know the financial model of the client. But there’s a vast amount of space under roof. And the building, itself, has this vast interior space which is really a relic of the 19th century. Buildings today don’t contain that volume of space unless it’s the Mall of America. In other words, those kinds of grand, public, indoor spaces nobody builds anymore because it doesn’t make any economic sense. So to tear one down would be kind of tragic in my view. I think the building has issues, but every old building has issues. A lot of the issues stem from the fact that the concept was so overreaching that it ended up far over budget and compromises were made, and a lot of money was spent on ideas that didn’t work.

The whole mechanical system was intended to be a sort of futuristic system. The building has huge storage tanks under it that were to be filled with ice using nighttime electric rates, then they would pump freon through them to cool the building during the daytime. But that system never really worked, so they ended up having to abandon it and put in conventional systems, which right away meant the building was an energy hog.

It was originally supposed to be double-glazed. That got engineered out for single-glazing because they couldn’t find a curtainwall company that was willing to double-glaze it at any kind of credible number.

These are things because I’m an old guy that I remember, and because an engineer who was very close to my former partner was consulted about it at the time.

The technical problems can all be fixed. We have much better technology now. Suppose, in a worst-case scenario, you were going to
re-glaze the building. It’s a lot cheaper than building a new building.

And it’s kind of iconic, in a way, of a time when government was still willing to make that kind of bold statement. It’s hard to imagine anybody building anything like that now.

So I think there’s a lot of reasons to preserve it. I mean, space is space. We have re-used factories, office buildings, warehouses…

Richard Whitney, Principal: Funeral homes.

FitzGerald: Funeral homes. I mean, we’ve repurposed all kinds of buildings, and you can inject a new life into an old shell and end up with something quite different and possibly much better than it’s previous use. We’re living in an age where everybody extols recycle cans, bottles and newspapers. The idea of throwing away a building is kind of repugnant to me not just because of the materials, which of course can be recycled to some extent. But all the labor. All the effort. How many hundreds of millions of B.T.U.’s of captured carbon does that building represent?

Editor:  Do you think the Thompson Center was destined to fail because it’s a government building, and certain governments simply aren’t capable of taking care of buildings, period?

FitzGerald: I think not understanding who your client is is frequently a problem, not just for government buildings, but for all kinds of buildings. There are buildings in Chicago that are over 100 years old and are beautifully functioning and still make money. A lot of that has to do with how they’ve been managed, and how they’ve been kept up, and how they’ve evolved to accommodate new uses over time.

Whitney: That’s exactly the key — it’s how they’re managed. If they are actively managed for the uses that make them viable, then they’ll stay viable. Then they’ll reinvest and maintain them and they’ll survive. If they’re not actively managed, that’s when spaces turn ugly, they get trashy, and things fall apart.

FitzGerald: Do you think the Thompson Center is a cautionary lesson in design?

Whitney: As Pat said, you have to understand your client, and you have to understand what they are capable of. There’s lots of great advanced systems out there, but half of the reason you see the same tower and podium over and over is because that’s what people can accept and manage and fund and maintain. The exotic, net-zero building is, for the most part, a single-family home. Because how do you scale that to something bigger? Your typical operating engineer doesn’t know to operate that kind of stuff. And nobody wants to learn how to do that stuff. “I know how to do my job, I don’t need to re-learn it.” That kind of thinking prevents a lot of great things and a lot of change from happening.

Editor:  But “net-zero” is something that a lot of firms are chasing.

Whitney: Sure. It’s a very admirable goal.

Editor:  But it’s hard to do.

Whitney: It’s very hard to do.

FitzGerald: It presumes long-term ownership of the building. Because in a capitalist society, buildings are not typically owned by one family or one company or one entity for decades and decades anymore. Buildings are built, and their state is transactional in the U.S. It’s not like places in Europe and elsewhere where government is calling the shots and there are a lot of ulterior motives driving people to make people to make statements that may or may not make sense economically. With rare exception, the projects that fall too far beyond the accepted vision, don’t get built here. They remain concepts and sketches, particularly here in the Middle West, which is a pragmatic place.

So we like to think in terms of pushing the parameters and evolving the next idea, and not wasting huge amounts of time and energy on imagining something that has a low degree of probability. There are plenty of firms that are willing to do that. I think we take pride that most of our ideas get built.

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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