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Illinois looking to sell downtown Chicago civic building

Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker announced plans to sell the Thompson Center, a postmodern Chicago government office complex nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, to private owners.

CHICAGO (CN) — The James R. Thompson Center, a public office complex in downtown Chicago nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, could soon be owned by a private company.

In a Wednesday press conference, Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced his plans to sell the building to Chicago-based real estate developer The Prime Group for about $70 million.

Pritzker characterized selling the Thompson Center as important to the "efficiency" of state government. He said exclusive negotiations are already underway between The Prime Group and the state. He said he believes the sale will save Illinois taxpayers a total of about $800 million, and added that he wanted revenue generated from this and other sales to be directed to Chicago Public Schools.

"For two decades, Illinois governors have known that the sale of the James R. Thompson Center was essential to achieving efficiency in our state government operations," Pritzker said. "Today I am proud to announce that for the very first time we're taking a massive step forward with a plan that will result in the sale of the Thompson Center."

The Prime Group was founded and is currently chaired by real estate mogul Michael Reschke, who also founded JRTC Holdings LLC to facilitate the purchase of the Thompson Center. Reschke's name is well known in Chicago business and politics. His company has undertaken several construction and renovation projects in the downtown Loop area, and he has contributed thousands of dollars to the campaign funds of several local office holders, including former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Edward Burke.

"There is no one better equipped to honor the original design of this building through a modern lens," Pritzker said.

Reschke discussed his vision for the 36-year-old building Wednesday, outlining what he wished to preserve and what he hoped to change about the glass-and-steel structure. It would remain a mixed-use building, he said, with the state renting office spaces as The Prime Group's tenant. Reschke said the Clark/Lake public transit stop, which is attached to the building and is one of the city's busiest train stations, would also remain as it is.

"The station... will remain in operation throughout the renovation period. There will be no change," Reschke said.

Changes Reschke said were in store for the building include a new curtain wall for the interior atrium to cut down on heating costs, a renovated entrance and possibly a new ballroom or entertaining space. He said he expects the entire renovation project to cost about $280 million, and take two years from the start of construction. The building will remain open while renovations are underway.

"We're just going to do a total gut renovation. The only thing we're saving is the steel structure... it'll be a brand new high-tech building," Reschke said.

Reschke also made clear he has no intentions of demolishing any major part of the building, something he said would be "an absolute travesty."

This came as good news to those concerned with Chicago's historical and architectural preservation.

"I’m in the James R. Thompson Center right now absorbing the news that the building WILL BE SAVED!!!!" architectural historian and Illinois Institute of Technology Architecture professor Elizabeth Blasius tweeted on Wednesday, following the news that the facility would be renovated rather than demolished.

Another historical preservation group, Landmarks Illinois, said it has considered the Thompson Center in danger of demolition since 2017. In a bid to save the Helmut Jahn-designed building, the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council voted in June to nominate it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The James R. Thompson Center Historical Society, in its application for the building's inclusion on the register, said it has had an outsized cultural significance considering its relatively young age. Blasius, who helped write much of the application, called it a rally point for the city's grassroots political activism and a milestone in the development of global, post-modern architectural techniques.

"Completed in 1985 by the Chicago-based firm Murphy/Jahn, led by Helmut Jahn, FAIA, the James R. Thompson Center’s design borrows from and combines themes from past architectural styles to embody ideals such as government transparency and civic participation," the application states. "The Thompson Center references other prominent civic buildings through its reflection of a classical rotunda; patriotism through its abstracted red, white and blue color palate; and the relationship between citizenship and commerce through its multi level retail arcade. The building is widely considered by architecture critics, historic preservationists, and planning professionals to be the greatest example of postmodern architecture in Chicago."

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