New documentary fights for preservation of aging Thompson Center

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Personalities in the short film all want to see the Thompson Center preserved, even if the building will be repurposed. (Starship Chicago)

In a 16-minute documentary titled “Starship Chicago” filmmaker Nathan Eddy advocates for the preservation of the James R. Thompson Center by filming interviews with building designer Helmut Jahn, postmodernist colleague Stanley Tigerman, design critics Blair Kamin and Lynn Becker, and former Illinois governor James “Big Jim” Thompson.

In the film, Jahn discussed how the tower could still be saved with adaptive reuse. Other interviewees supported his cause and expressed that they would like to see the Thompson Center live on in some capacity, whether its atrium is converted into a hotel or shopping center.

Also known as The State of Illinois Building, Jahn’s tower has been threatened since October 2015 when current Illinois governor Bruce Rauner began publicly calling for the sale of the postmodern tower, saying that with $326 million in deferred maintenance costs, it needs to be unloaded from the state’s books. The sale, he argued, will also bring $200 million to the state’s depleted budget.

In 2017, Rauner took his campaign to sell the building more seriously by teaming up with architects. He commissioned Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill to draft renderings of a 115-story supertall tower reminiscent to the Chicago Spire.

Jahn countered by making a new plan that will not only preserve the existing 16-story structure but also repurpose it to fit modern needs. His design included the construction of a new contributing office tower that could help raise funds to cover the maintenance cost of the Thompson Center. A conceptual rendering showed a slim 110-story structure.

The documentary premiered in Chicago Oct. 21 and is available for viewing online.