Documentary Highlights Chicago’s Endangered Thompson Center

Chicago's steel-framed James R. Thompson Center (originally named the State of Illinois Center) under construction in the early 1980s. (Photo: Chuckman's Collection)  

A newly released short documentary, Starship Chicago, explores the struggle and controversy around preserving Chicago’s steel-framed James R. Thompson Center. The postmodern government building, which opened in 1985 as the State of Illinois Center, is currently at risk of demolition as the state department has put it up for sale. The 16-minute film was made to help save the building by reinforcing its architectural importance to the city’s heritage.

"Chicago preservationists, along with the building’s original champion, Governor James R. Thompson, are gearing up for a major battle to save the city’s most provocative architectural statement," tells the director and producer Nathan Eddy. The documentary interviews the architect, Helmut Jahn, former Illinois governor James. R. Thompson, whom the building is named after, along with Chicago architects, architectural critics and historians.

Despite initial construction flaws and hefty refurbishment costs, this architectural vision of an open, accessible and inspiring civic building—defined by its iconic, soaring atrium—remains intact.

The steel, marble and glass structure is one of the first curved buildings in downtown Chicago and surrounds one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world. The building's steel frame is topped by a cylindrical skylight soaring 75 ft above the roof level, earning it the “starship” moniker. The rotunda, which is 160 ft in diameter, is encircled by 16 floors of office space, with balconies at each level.

Starship Chicago is free to watch on Vimeo.