Tag Archives: Chicago

That’s the Power of Love (Architecture) : The James R. Thompson Center

The James R. Thompson Center (formerly the State of Illinois Center), Helmut Jahn, 1985.
The James R. Thompson Center (formerly the State of Illinois Center), Helmut Jahn, 1985.

On October 13, 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner held a news conference in Chicago, presenting an aggressive, but perhaps not surprising plan to sell the Helmut Jahn-designed James R. Thompson Center, constructed in 1985. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, it is proposed that the building be sold for cash at a public auction, the over 2,000 state workers moved elsewhere, and demolished, making way for the same-old same-old high-density, mixed use, regrettable architecture.

Rauner had this to say:

“This building is ineffective.  For the people who work here, all of whom are eager to move somewhere else, it’s noisy.  It’s hard to meet with your colleagues.  It’s hard to move through the building, very ineffective, noise from downstairs, smells from the food court all get into the offices”

A lot of people hate this building, but not for its architecture. Taxpayers in Illinois famously hissed over its $172 million dollar price tag, nearly twice its original budget, and a part of history that rings in the ears of people across the state as Springfield continues its own budget deadlock.  Helmut Jahn, irresponsible Starchitect and GQ cover subject was so obsessed with the building’s aesthetics that he neglected to develop a way to cool the interior properly, leaving state employees sweating it out for years.

Historic architecture in Chicago’s Loop has been serving the same non-offensive menu year after year, expertly taste-tested by historians, tourists and Chicagoans. Daniel Burnham is clearly the meat course, with Louis Sullivan and his curvilinear forms the vegetables.  The starch course is the Rookery, the Railway Exchange Building, and the Reliance Building, with Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe acting as dessert, which many pass on for the swags and acanthus patterns that remain snug and safe along with everything else we have spoiled our appetite with.  It’s an outdated bill of fare.  It comes as no surprise that the Thompson Center as great architecture was a hard sell as new architecture in 1985, and a hard sell thirty years later as we look forward.

Visit the Thompson Center at noon, and it’s easy to find another reason to hate it. It’s the food smell capital of the Loop.  Pizza, Dunkaccinos, Chinese food and Popeye’s all hotboxing inside the steel and glass rotunda.  It’s filled with the anxious energy of coworkers in khakis with key cards, camping out at tables downstairs and chewing on the last cubes of ice from their fountain drinks before heading back to their cubicles.  Businesses like GNC and the curiously placed Amerinka’s Native Arts & Craft feel as if they are just loitering, and there is certainly a lot of that.  People are everywhere, and they are their own system within the building.  It’s a frenzy of modern urban life.  Chicago is filing for licenses, paying fees, and getting off the train. Then there is the fatal attraction of the building’s spiraling marble floor, a target for nearly a half a dozen jumpers since the building opened thirty years ago.

There is no way to deny the psychological effect of having to go to the DMV, which is another reason the Thompson Center is lauded. Put people in a building where it is expected they will have to wait, experience terrible customer service and inevitably not have the correct form or piece of documentation and it’s impossible to get them to even notice the muted Post-modern color palate as anything more than “puke pink and ugly blue.”  It’s like hating U2 because Bono is a pompous ass, and not because every album they’ve put out since 2000 has been crappy.

Thompson 6

With a reported $100 million in deferred maintenance, the building has seen better days. The granite panels that served to provide drama to the pedestrian arcade surrounding the building, and as a corral for Jean Dubuffet’s striking Monument with Standing Beast (aka “Snoopy in a Blender”) have been removed.  Interior surfaces are rusty, HVAC grates have been kicked in, and there are multiple areas of water damage and spall.  But perhaps nothing is as blatantly obvious as the dinginess of the building’s exterior glass panels.  It looks dirty from across the street, from above, and from the sky.  It’s embarrassing.

This neglect, along with the sub-par tenants and failed driving tests, has given the building a messy reputation, and serves to toxify discussions about the building’s architectural merit. But the new school of cultural heritage preservationists are undaunted, and encouraged by the opportunity to sit on a precipice of sorts, both with the opportunity to preserve postmodern heritage, some of which is just as old as the people in the movement; and aligning that with new ways to talk about how to preserve the architecture of the places that matter.  As we move towards a future of cultural resources management where we look at time as more fluid in determining significance, and reject a traditional attitude towards what we consider historic, the sooner we will realize we can serve buildings better, be better stewards and most importantly; serve people by saving beautiful places.  And the James R. Thompson Center is a beautiful place.

Thompson interior big

It’s that magic formula of brains, beauty and fun that makes the Thompson Center a stone cold stunner.  Its overstated  rotunda is a winking reference to nearly every state capital or county building constructed in the 19th century.  Encompassing an entire city block, the primary entrance is set back and tilted towards Chicago City Hall and the Richard J. Daley Center, indicating that the building’s relationship with its surrounding area is a public one.

The colonnade hugging the buildings rounded primary façade is supersized Ancient Rome, and made a conscious decision to ignore all of the architecture afterword until Jahn hit the drawing board in the early 1980s.

Inside, the ceiling soars and the materials are glossy and reflective, while the buildings’ expressed structure focuses and projects.

Light standards are not on the sidewalk outside, but within.   And the stairways and escalators have been pulled out from the center core of the building, and placed on the walls of the soaring cavity of the atrium, like fully functioning organs pulled outside of the body.  It’s a living organism, a human sized, breathing ant farm.  The movement is constant.

The dusty cobalt and creamy tomato soup color palate is America Lite, a political statement that lives comfortably with the Thompson Center as a governmental building. The basic pleasure of the colors and their placement in strong geometric fields appeal to the LEGO builder in you.  This is not your father’s Modernism.  This is a world where we were imagining the future of buildings, the future of government, and the future of us.  On Hoverboards.  Even the idealized future is an authentic part of our past, and helps us determine what we build.

Like a song made better as a cover, perhaps the Thompson Center could be improved upon and reimagined using the same care applied to the restoration of other significant; but more mainline, historic Chicago buildings. The cost of repairing the building’s originally failed systems would pale in comparison to the millions of dollars spent to repair Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that were built without downspouts, because Wright didn’t like the way they looked on his vertical line-challenged designs.  While each restoration project is unique, Wright’s buildings are a dime a dozen, and Jahn’s is truly one of a kind.  Buildings with great stewards like the ones responsible for the brilliant restoration of the Chicago Athletic Association into the Loop’s most creative new/old hangout should be inspiration enough that the nearly impossible is possible (and profitable, too!)  Giving the James R. Thompson Center a more creative second life would have a substantial halo effect, both in terms of the preservation of Postmodern buildings, and in Chicago.  A significant building worthy of a future we curate and create.

The Little House Redux

Once upon a time there was a little house.

Virgina Lee Burton, 1942

…and this little house

The Little House, written by Virginia Lee Burton in 1942, is the sweet, sweet cradle song of Historic Preservation. The Little House is a perspective of a century of change from the viewpoint of a lovely little Victorian cottage. Originally built on a small hill in the countryside, the Little House views the bright lights of the city from afar and as the aggressive machine of progress pushes on, the Little House eventually finds itself decades later in the middle of the big, bad city. Neglected. Sad. A relic from the past that couldn’t possibly be needed or wanted.

Watch Walt Disney’s charming 1952 cartoon of the story featuring the ebullient voice of Sterling Holloway.

In Burton’s tale, the little house is saved by a familiar hero in preservation; a homeowner who won’t settle for something with a thin brick face, cinderblock sides and a rectangular floor plan. In the case of the real life ‘little house’, Chicago’s 1836 Henry B. Clarke House, the hero is an unlikely one, but endures as one of the most important unsung characters in Historic Preservation.

Image courtesy The Chicago Defender, 1976

Who’d believe, up on the north shore and such places, that here, in the heart of the ghetto, grass is growing all around, and flowers. So many people think the black community is supposed to destroy everything…Destroy everything? Here we have preserved the oldest house. This is our message.

Bishop Louis Henry Ford, Chicago Defender, August 26th, 1976.

Bishop Ford, a migrant from Clarksdale, Mississippi, came to Chicago in 1933 and began preaching on street corners. Bishop Ford founded the St. Paul Church of God in Christ three years later on Chicago’s South Side. He gained a reputation of compassion and community leadership and worked hard against poverty, violence and promoted racial tolerance. Bishop Ford served as a member of the executive committee of the N.A.A.C.P and moved thousands while delivering the eulogy at the funeral of Emmett Till at Roberts Temple C.O.G.I.C on September 3rd, 1955. He was also the proud owner of ‘Chicago’s Oldest House’ from 1941 to 1977. Bishop Ford understood the tremendous power of using history as a tool to inspire community pride, for both people within his congregation and in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Clarke House was the showpiece of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. Bishop Ford and his congregation began to rehabilitate the house in 1943, and continued with regular improvements over the years, removing decayed lumber, repairing the cupola and providing the house with a fresh coat of paint each year. Bishop Ford threw annual teas for the Clarke House each August, and the donations from these teas played a substantial role in the upkeep of the building and grounds. The St. Paul Church of God in Christ proudly displayed the Clarke House on church newsletters and fliers, with images of the ‘little house’ printed under the assertive phrase, ‘Jesus Never Fails’.

As Chicago’s best surviving example of Greek Revival architecture, the 1836 Clarke House has endured almost as much turmoil and change as the city itself, and even holds boasting rights for being a year older. After watching Chicago grow exponentially over four decades, the Clarke House witnessed the catastrophic Great Fire in 1871, lying south of the infamous O’Leary barn and the conflagration that burned aggressively to the north. In 1872, the Clarke House was moved from 16th Street and Michigan to Wabash and 45th Street, by its second owner, John Chrimes, where it would quietly observe Chicago grow up around it into the 20th century.

After surviving past centenarian, the Clarke House found itself under the ownership of two retired schoolteachers, Lydia and Laura Walters. The Walters became owners of the house after the death of their father, William Walter, who purchased the home from John Chrimes in 1878. Tired of the houses’ upkeep, the Walters sisters urged the City of Chicago to purchase the house in 1940. The city declined, and the Walters considered demolition. Bishop Ford, in a savvy move for history, bought the house in 1941 for $7,000.

Uses for the Clarke House varied over the years it was owned by Bishop Ford, from housing Ford and his family to providing room and board to African-Americans who had recently migrated from the South. The St. Paul Church of God in Christ used the house as social space for various years, and a café was run by the Bishop’s wife, Margaret Ford in the basement of the house from around 1949 until 1953. The café served “soul food with flair” and Mrs. Ford’s famous strawberry shortcake. Bishop Ford also broadcast a weekly radio show from the Clarke House on WVON. The Clarke House was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1970, and was given National Register status in 1971, both under the watchful stewardship of Bishop Ford.

It was always Bishop Ford’s intention to find an owner for the Clarke House that would have the means to restore and maintain the building in perpetuity, and in 1977 the City of Chicago purchased the home. Plans were made to move the house from 45th and Wabash to its current location at 18th and Indiana. The house rolled slowly north until it hit the Englewood-Jackson Park ‘L’ tracks, where it was hoisted over the tracks using 27 feet of wooden cribs.

In an unfortunate stroke of weather-induced bad luck, the cold caused the hydraulic equipment required for lowering the cribs to freeze, and the ‘little house’ spent two weeks gazing at the cities’ skyline from beside the Green Line. Many Chicagoans fondly remember the sight of the house hovering in mid-air during that frigid December.

Once the Clarke House made it to the site, it was placed on a modern foundation and integrated into the newly created Prairie Avenue Historic District After five years of carefully conducted research and reconstruction, the Clarke House opened as a museum in 1982, reflecting the period of time in which Henry B. Clarke and his family lived in the home. The following year the St. Paul Church of God in Christ celebrated its 147th birthday with a commemorative tea on the grounds.

Bishop Louis Henry Ford passed away in 1995, and is remembered as a civil rights activist, educator and spiritual leader during his nearly fifty years as a minister. Bishop Ford was further commemorated by the dedication of the freeway that bears his name.

Much ado is made about the life and times of Henry Clarke and his family, middle-class migrants from New York State who came to Chicago for the promise of making a better life out on the prairie. But bookended between the house’s ‘period of significance’ and the contemporary throngs of tour-goers leaning eagerly over velvet ropes lies the story of an uphill struggle to acknowledge history and recognize its significance within a community.

Almost every Historic Preservation story has a Bishop Ford; someone that played a crucial role in identification or stewardship that has no direct link to the buildings’ most significant period, but nevertheless felt the need to assist in securing it for the future. Bishop Ford understood the importance of Chicago’s architectural heritage decades before any local or national landmarks laws were even a pipe dream in the minds of historians and lawmakers. Bishop Louis Henry Ford was a true pioneer and a champion of history.

It’s amazing what a little house can do.