google to SOIC–this is…good?

The saga of Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center/Thompson Center seems to be coming to a happy end for preservationists and Loop advocates with the news that Google will buy, renovate, and occupy the building (headline writers can’t resist adding “after long search…”)

Google’s move reverses a worrying trend of disinvestment as commercial tenants have been leaving the Loop in droves as remote work has encouraged alternative locations and office arrangements. Anchoring the center of the city with a few thousand employees is a good thing for transit, for retail and dining establishments, and for the city in general.

From a preservation point of view, it remains to be seen whether Google lives up to the not-totally-fulfilled promises of the 1986 building. Always a public favorite, access to its glass atrium and rotunda (stunning but environmentally dubious) is in question, as are its iconic Miami-Beach-on-Clark-Street curtain walls and postmodern? deconstructivist? follies that worked better as axonometric drawings than public sculpture. Jahn’s original curtain wall design was supposed to combine structural glazing with insulated glass, but this proved beyond the capabilities of manufacturers and installers in the 1980s. With Google’s deep pockets maybe this gets revived, though the basic physics of its southwest southeast-facing, 14-story glass atrium can’t help but present environmental challenges. (Thanks for the correction, Kevin G.–your proofreading merit badge is on its way…)

Less heralded but equally good news, IMHO, is the announcement that the State will decamp from the Thompson Center to the “old” Harris Bank/BMO tower a few blocks south. Designed by SOM and built in the early 1970s, it’s a vastly underappreciated example of the firm’s most rigorous work, with a finely tailored stainless steel curtain wall and central core elevators that are effectively suspended above the ground floor lobby and accessed by escalator, leaving the space wide open. It’s a subtle building, and hemmed in enough by its neighbors on La Salle Street that it’s hard to notice, but worth a look–especially as it presents a neat contrast with the first Harris tower, also by SOM, on the eastern end of the block. That was designed by Walter Netsch, a rare skyscraper by him, and the contrast between the gothic-like tracery of Netsch’s tower and the robust, if latent, classicism of the later one, by Bruce Graham, is pretty clear.

State of Illinois had a complex history. It emerged as the last, long-delayed element of Mayor Daley’s plan to keep Federal, City, and State offices downtown and as the sole piece of the ill-fated North Loop revitalization plan championed by Arthur Rubloff. If that had gone through, much of the area east and north of SOIC (including, unbelievably, Rapp & Rapp’s iconic Chicago Theater) would have been razed, replaced with megablocks and skywalks that, in hindsight, would have been disastrous. Jahn and then-governor James Thompson both saw the utility in producing a striking, press-release-worthy building, but making the complex geometry and giant atrium work proved difficult. The project suffered cost overruns, declining support in the local press, and serious thermal and water infiltration problems. Budget cuts eliminated new furniture and even doors on private offices–one wag at the Tribune noted that, finally, the State was living up to its promise of “open government.” But the atrium and basement food court (a new innovation in 1986) were immediately popular with workers and the public–the building regularly was cited as both the “most hated” and “most loved” building in the city.

If Google keeps some public access, if it leverages its ownership into much-needed improvements to the CTA station attached to the Center, and if it invests in restoring or replacing the building’s cladding, this will prove to be a good thing. I’ve written critically about the efforts to landmark and salvage the Thompson Center before–I think the costs and consumption needed to keep energy-hogging buildings alive and running has to be taken into account when we have these conversations–but if Google is picking up the bill and if it’s willing to keep the best aspects of the building while fixing the most difficult this could be a win…

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