Former governor Jim Thompson

Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

Former governor Jim Thompson

It certainly seems like a preposterous extravagance to spend $669,608 for three sets of copper-clad entrance doors to the State Capitol and nearly $157,652 for sculptures of two robed maidens to stand guard at the base the Capitol’s grand staircase, and $323,712 for four chandeliers.

Politicians were running away from the expenditures—part of a $50 million renovation of the Capitol’s west wing, most of which is going to rid the late 19th century statehouse of asbestos, improve its handicap accessibility, its fire safety, its electrical grid, and its air conditioning and heating systems.

I called the former governor Jim Thompson, he of the Loop’s namesake James R. Thompson Center and the maven of all things architecture, design, and antique.

Thompson, 77, a partner at Winston & Strawn, will likely never run for elective office again—he served 1977-1991, the state’s longest-serving governor—so, unlike a growing list of Illinois pols who are running for cover while they blast the expenditures, Thompson can speak freely, and he did.

“Where were they supposed to buy the doors, and maidens and chandeliers?” he asked. “Walmart, Lowe’s?”

“The Capitol,” he said, “is the most significant building in the state of Illinois. . . . All they’re doing with the doors and the maidens is putting the Capitol back to what it was when it was constructed. . . . These items are part of a $50 million capital expenditure…as part of a health and safety renovation. . . . These are capital funds, not operating funds. They can’t be used for services, for example, for senior citizens or developmentally disabled young people.”

Thompson characterized the six-figure price tags as “not only historically correct,” but also, in the long run, a “bargain,” because “the chandeliers and the maidens and the doors will last over one hundred years.” He added, hyperbolically, “In every other state in the union, [public officials] go to great lengths to retain authenticity.”

I asked him if he was surprised that politicians, including Gov. Pat Quinn and the republican candidate striving to take Quinn’s job, State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, are publicly denouncing the expenditures. “Not it’s typical,” he said in a weary tone. “The press writes these stories front page, . . . politicians react. I’ve seen it all before.”

Thompson reminded me that while he was governor in the “last great recession” in the 1980s, that he “led the [taxpayer] purchase of Springfield’s Dana-Thompson House.” (The state took possession of the long-neglected house in 1981.)

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1902 and completed in 1904, the 35-room, 12,600 square-foot house bills itself today as “. . . the best preserved and most complete of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early ‘Prairie’ houses.”

“It cost the state $1 million. I was criticized for that and for the subsequent $6 or $7 million it took to restore it for health safety, heating, plumbing, air conditioning. I raised $3 million privately to restore some of the furniture that had been moved out. [The house is unusual in that it’s said that Wright designed every detail of it—furniture, woodwork, bookcases, lights, windows.] Now the state of Illinois has the most complete Frank Lloyd Wright house. It’s worth $50 million today. I took the criticism because I thought it was an important Wright house.”

The Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamen wrote in 1990 that that the Dana-Thompson house “. . . contains a plethora of shimmering stained-glass windows and sturdy, geometric furniture that could fetch millions of dollars on the auction block.”

Thompson described the expenditure for a house, opened to the public in 1990, that generates around 41,000 visitors annually, as “a proper state expenditure, just like the state fair in Springfield. Gotta do this, like a museum. You could criticize the building of museums too. Why won’t the old one do?”

I asked the former governor if it might have been wiser to raise money privately for those
State Capitol doors, etc. “No,” he answered, because by the time the money was raised the restoration effort would have been over.

“Now we should turn our attention to the pension crisis,” he added.

Thompson says he had no advisory role or any other kind of role in the State Capitol renovation. He’ll see the doors and maidens when he visits Springfield at the end of this month.