Part II: Downtown, West Suburbs, North Shore
The deep, rich history of Chicago architecture is sprawled across the metropolitan area. Residents and visitors alike celebrate the unique designs and diverse styles that span the region.
Guided tours commemorate the city’s most famous structures, particularly along the Chicago River. But lesser known and often less celebrated buildings dot the Chicago area.
Three of those latter works in downtown Chicago, in the West Suburbs and in the North Shore are in danger of disappearing forever. And one, revered by critics for its design, is not as often hailed by local residents.
All three -- an only 36-year-old state office building, a 55-year-old former publishing company in Glenview and a nearly 100-year-old Cicero restaurant -- were placed on Landmarks Illinois’ list of the 2021 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.
The first, the James R. Thompson Center, formerly known as the State of Illinois Center, 100 W. Randolph St., received a reprieve of sorts in June when a state panel opposed Gov. J.B. Pritzker and two state agencies by recommending its nomination to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Such a designation would not save it from the wrecking ball, but would provide tax breaks to owners for up to 20 percent of eligible costs, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Would-be buyers have until Aug. 16 to propose redevelopment of the property to the state, its current owner, the newspaper said.
The grand building, designed by renowned German-American architect Helmut Jahn and constructed in 1985, stands 17 stories tall with a stunning atrium “reminiscent of earlier monumental public spaces,” said Kaitlyn McAvoy, spokeswoman for Landmarks Illinois.
When it opened in 1985, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp called it “the most cerebral, the most abstract, yet easily the most spectacular building ever constructed in the Loop.”
“Its interior is no less than breathtaking, as the public will soon find out,” Gapp wrote. “In a city where architects so long worshiped the 90-degree angle and black curtain walls, the center`s asymmetry and multicolored skin appear as almost impudent nose-thumbing at the past.”
Yet not everyone was so enthralled by Jahn's postmodern statement.
“Some Chicago designers and art historians have, indeed, expressed outrage over the building, claiming that its bold presence and touches of outrageousness defame Chicago’s internationally honored architectural heritage,” Gapp added.
Former Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration encouraged total demolition and replacement of the building with a new “super tower,” McAvoy said. In January, Pritzker, a Democrat, announced the state had purchased another 17-story building downtown to house offices currently in the Thompson Center.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Legislature pushed the target deadline for sale of the building to April 5, 2022, McAvoy said. The state issued a request for proposals to redevelop the property in May, she said.
Landmarks Illinois has placed the controversial building on its Most Endangered Historic Places list four times, McAvoy said. The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the structure on its 2019 Most Endangered list, as well, she said.
“Landmarks Illinois understands a sale of the Thompson Center would bring needed revenue to the State of Illinois,” McAvoy said. “Still, terms of the deal should include retaining and reusing this irreplaceable building, an approach supported by state statute for National Register-listed and eligible buildings.”
Less than 10 miles west but seemingly another continent and age away lies the 99-year-old former Klas Restaurant, 5734 W. Cermak Road in Cicero. The 12,825-square-foot two-story building is vacant and up for sale as a restaurant, according to McAvoy.
However, the Czech-styled, gothic-inspired building is deteriorating and facing water damage, mildew and structural issues due to a leaky roof, she said. Those conditions “could be cost prohibitive to a potential buyer,” McAvoy said.
“Despite its cultural significance to the Cicero community, Klas Restaurant has no historical designation or protection, and a future buyer could pursue demolition instead of refurbishing and reusing the building,” she said.
Cicero town leaders, local residents, and the Czech and Slovak communities have offered “extraordinary support” for repurposing the restaurant, including using it as a museum, McAvoy said.
Adolf Klas built the restaurant in 1922 to represent traditional Czech culture among Cicero’s substantial Czech population, she said. The restaurant operated for more than 90 years and boasted Al Capone, President H.W. Bush and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright among its patrons, McAvoy said.
Klas hoped to replicate the architecture and design of traditional Czech buildings, she said. Part of the exterior mirrored gothic architecture in Prague, and another section used timbers and stucco to model a medieval European village, McAvoy said.
One proposal calls for converting the former restaurant into a multiethnic museum that also would pay tribute to Cicero’s Mexican-American community, she said.
“The idea of turning the Klas into a multiethnic museum would focus on the similar paths of Czech and Mexican migration,” McAvoy said. “The location of Klas Restaurant on Cermak Road provides an opportunity to connect the many ethnic groups that have used this road as a center of community life.”
Somewhere in between the postmodern Thompson Center and the gothic-inspired Klas Restaurant stands the Midcentury Modern former Scott Foresman Headquarters, 1900 E. Lake Ave. in Glenview, built in 1966.
The former publishing headquarters, which closed in 2020, span 255,000 square feet across four buildings connected by glass enclosed walkways. The nearly 20-acre complex sits on a 44-acre campus whose landscaped grounds and pathways have been used by residents of the surrounding community, McAvoy said.
Three outdoor plazas and a fountain pool were created between the buildings to give employees tranquil outdoor areas, she said. In its October 1968 edition, Architectural Record wrote: “Great stress was made in the program for the use of materials, scale and landscaping that would be compatible with both rather special working needs and the surrounding neighborhood.”
The columns and overhangs at Scott Foresman and the retaining walls around the courtyards were built with cast-in-place sandblasted concrete, McAvoy said. A large skylight, framed by 36 pyramids in 12 rows of three, remains intact over the main reception hall, she said.
The complex is endangered because it is for sale, in risk of foreclosure and being marketed for single-family residential homes, a use permitted by the village of Glenview, McAvoy said.
“Instead, it should be prioritized for reuse, which will preserve its important suburban legacy,” she said. “The Scott Foresman site is one of many suburban corporate campuses that are important Midcentury Modern designs by significant architectural firms, unprotected by any type of landmark designation.”
Jerry Johnson, design principal and principal for Perkins & Will, which designed the campus, agrees.
“This place is an extraordinary example of the work of my firm, Perkins & Will, from the mid-20th century,” Johnson said. “It represents a modernist approach to an emerging building typology — a corporate campus. I believe this place is important to the community because it provides variety both in its design and purpose that makes for a more vibrant and interesting place to live and work.”
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