Architect's Death Pushes Debate Over Thompson Center Back Into Spotlight

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Within a week of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker formally putting Chicago’s Thompson Center up for sale, the building’s renowned architect, Helmut Jahn, died in an accident, and his death has renewed the debate over whether to save the Thompson Center, one of the most polarizing buildings in the city, or to demolish the structure.

Jahn was killed while riding his bicycle over the weekend. Authorities say Jahn rode his bike into an intersection and was struck by two vehicles.

While some argue that the Thompson Center must be demolished because of myriad defects and issues, with Pritzker arguing that the building would need more than $300 million in repairs, there are some who believe that maintaining the structure would be a fitting tribute to the late Jahn’s legacy.

“Let’s landmark the building,” Ward Miller of the group Preservation Chicago said. “Let’s landmark its exterior, its interior, and its special features.”

The building is one of the most unique in the city, with the 17-story structure dominated by glass and other materials that capture the eye when walking through the downtown region, and former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey says the unique features of the building make it worth saving.

“Even the exterior, like it or love it, (makes) it a unique building,” Bey said. “We’re a city that builds typically unique buildings, and this building belongs in the story. If you’re telling the story of Chicago architecture, this building is an important chapter in it.”

Helmut Jahn, a prominent German architect who was known in Chicago for designing the city's Thompson Center, was remembered Sunday for his incredible works of art. NBC 5's Lexi Sutter reports.

Pritzker lauded Jahn’s work after his death, but hasn’t said whether he would push for the structure to be saved after its sale.

“It’s not the greatest example of his work,” Pritzker said of the building.

Landmarks Illinois is pushing hard for the building to receive landmark status.

“The state did determine that this building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, so actually it’s an historic resource already,” Landmarks Illinois CEO Bonnie MacDonald said.

Before his death, Jahn agreed, arguing that the state would be best served by repurposing the building and suggested adding condominiums to the structure.

Bids are due by mid-August, but MacDonald hopes that bidders recognize the value of the building.

“Rather than throwing it away, it should be repurposed,” she said. “We don’t throw away an aluminum can. Why would we throw away a building that can be reused?”

A public meeting is scheduled for May 18 to encourage discussion about what will happen to the building in coming years.

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