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The Oft-Troubled History Of The James R. Thompson Center

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Gov. J.B. Pritzker's decision to put the James R. Thompson Center up for sale got the Morning Insiders curious – is selling a prized possession really the way to balance the budget?

CBS 2's Vince Gerasole took a look inside the troubled history of the Illinois state office building.

Since 1985, with its curved glass walls and towering 17-story atrium, the Thompson Center has looked like a spaceship that landed in the heart of the Loop. But that was part of its intent.

Travel back in time to its unveiling, and you'll find banners running the height of the building, proudly proclaiming that it was "a building for the year 2000."

"This was an exciting development, and it was totally futuristic," said Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago. "It was sort of billed as a 21st century building."

When it opened as the State of Illinois Building, the great space inside and its floors of open offices were meant to pay tribute to transparency in government – the inspiration for architect Helmut Jahn.

"We had seven schemes, and in one day we had to present it to the governor," Jahn said. "I had to not favor any scheme."

But even before visitors took their first elevator ride, there were issues.

"There were many cost overruns that were not anticipated," Miller said.

Custom double-pane glass had to be scaled back to single-pane. That led to hot summer and cold winter office spaces that the building's heating and cooling system has struggled with.

Drainage issues led to the rusty deterioration of some of the building's pillars, and as stone cracked and fell, unsightly scaffolding was placed around the building for extended periods.

"This is all deferred maintenance, and we should have -- as a state -- we should have been addressing this a long time ago," Miller said.

But in 2019, the Pritzker administration is addressing it with an idea that has been floated before – a proposed sale. The Pritzker administration says it would cost $300 million to make repairs here, in addition to the building's $17 million in operating costs each year.

"Well I think it's downright crummy," Miller said.

You might expect Miller wants to preserve the Thompson Center. He says the state isn't trying hard enough.

"We shouldn't be losing these great works of art of the 20th century," he said. "And I know this is a controversial building, and postmodernism in general and mid-century modern is controversial. But maybe the next generation will appreciate it more than some of us in our current generation."

That sounds a lot like an observation the late CBS 2 reporter Mike Parker made on opening day back in 1985.

"The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said that a doctor can bury his mistakes; an architect can only plant vines," Parker said in a closing standup shot for his report on the opening. "Perhaps by the year 2000, we'll know if the state is planting vines around here."

Thirty-four years after that, and 19 years beyond the year 2000, the vines have yet to grow.

While preservationists say the Thompson Center is historically significant, the Pritzker administration says the building is an inefficient environment for the demands of state business.

On Tuesday, the Pritzker administration announced that a request for proposals would be issued within the week, seeking technical and project management expertise so that the Thompson Center can be sold at the best value to the state.

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