The Famous Architect's
Jahn? Parking ramp? Springfield?
Illinois Times May 13, 2021
In a 2001 column for Illinois Times I titled “Architectural dreams” I noted that Springfield is home to four building designed by major national and international firms. None is among the best work of these firms, and it is easy to assume that they were churned out by junior members of their staffs. (The exception is a house redo by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was his own staff.)
In that column I did not mention is that a convention center parking ramp in downtown Springfield that was done by the late Helmut Jahn when he was design principal at the Chicago firm of C. F. Murphy. The claim that Jahn Jahn in his heyday designed some very good buildings in Illinois, my favorites being his Xerox building at Dearborn and Monroe, United Airline’s Terminal One at O’Hare, and a stylish condo tower at 1000 S. Michigan Avenue. He also designed some good buildings that were never built, such as a new main library for Chicago, and one that should have been built better—the State of Illinois Center on Randolph at Clark.
The Springfield project appears in his catalog raisonné but is hardly a major work, owing to the circumstances of its construction. When Jahn died in May 2021, my editor at IT asked me to reflect on that forgotten commission.
This version varies slightly from the published one.
If you had asked cosmopolitan Springfieldians in 1990 or so to name the Springfield parking ramp designed by flamboyant German American architect Helmut Jahn, most would have pointed to the municipal ramp at 7th and Monroe. As built in 1967, its louvered façade of precast concrete slats made it one of the handsomest structures of any kind in the capital.
They would have been wrong. The city ramp was the work of Springfield’s Ferry & Henderson with Ralph Hahn and Associates. A block up 7th Street is the one Jahn designed. Jahn—who died May 8 after running a stop sign in the Fox River valley (he was 81 and on a bicycle, a very Jahnian death) was a young partner in the 1970s at the Chicago firm of C.F. Murphy and Associates. He was tasked with the design of the parking ramp being built for the new convention center complex.
The Springfield Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority had asked the developer of the adjacent hotel to give SMEAA more ramp than they had money for and also demanded design changes that left Jahn testily asking them why they hired a professional for the job if they didn’t plan to listen to him. The result, as you can see today, ain’t edifyin.’
You’d have thought that his Springfield experience would have put John off public building projects in Illinois but he persisted. Jahn’s proposed main public library for Chicago was rejected in 1988 by a competition jury that chose instead to spend $150 million to build of the worst major buildings in Chicago because it “looked more like a library.” J. B. Pritzker said that what is now known as the Thompson Center, which opened in Chicago’s Loop in 1985, was a building” that never lived up to his creative genius” but that was being kind; “Starship Chicago” was a great government center but a lousy office building.
Jahn was never going to get a chance to design the new state library that opened in 1990—see “Unbalanced structure”—but we can regret he didn’t live to submit a proposal for a new Stratton Building. ●
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