The Thompson Center cost $172 million to construct. Helmut Jahn, who died in a bike accident last month, began designing the 17-story building in 1979. Located on the corner of State and Lake, it was originally known as the State of Illinois Center, but named after its keeper, then-Illinois Governor James R. Thompson. After Thompson left office, he contributed to Illinois’s long-standing history of political corruption by having his firm represent Governor George Ryan pro bono. The Thompson Center serves as a train station and a state office building; it boasts retail shopping on the ground level and a food court in the basement.
The building has recently gone for sale and, in time, may see demolition as state employees move to 555 West Monroe, saving the city millions in upkeep and real estate costs each year. Many Chicagoans have offered their stories and opinions on the structure over the years. Some consider the vast interior atrium as a thing of beauty, while others claim the outside to be a typewriter-esque eyesore.
I have a rather intimate relationship with the Thompson Center, one that I’m finally able to write about. On October 11, 2011, my Aunt Eileen jumped off the 15th floor inside the atrium and fell to the building’s bullseye-like basement in a successful attempt at taking her own life. She was the fifth person to commit suicide since the building opened in 1985.
My aunt worked in the building during the 80s and 90s and had been present when people had jumped from various floors before. She told me about how hot the building would get in the summer months, and how cold it got in the brutal winters. My aunt was my best friend. My sister and I couldn’t pronounce her name as children, so we called her Ah-Leen. She was my mother’s twin and she struggled with her mental health and addiction for most of her life.
Growing up, she was over every weekend, providing respite to my mother. She’d have us recite prayers for safety before we went on drives, she would witness to people in the grocery store who she deemed were sinners and told us about the powers of Alcoholics Anonymous. As a born-again Christian, it was her job to provide people the tools to get into the kingdom of heaven. Ultimately, her belief in a kingdom trumped her will to live as she stated several times in a 13-page goodbye letter to my sister and me. She ended her own pain and suffering by suicide because she’d get to God sooner, because she was leaving us here for a better place.
In October 2011 I returned to Chicago after working as a White House intern in Washington. I was in transition, and had just begun my final year of college at a school downtown. I pulled into my mother’s driveway on a Friday afternoon.
Our mailman was new. The mail had been arriving later and later in the day since his start some months before, according to my mother. It was a warm evening and the sun had just begun to turn orange as I walked down our cracked asphalt driveway to cross the street to the mailbox.
Bank statement, bank statement, credit card ad, Valpak savings booklet, and a padded envelope from my aunt. Her beautiful penmanship was warm and easy to recognize. I passed it to my mother and carried on with unpacking and reorganizing my belongings, out of my car and into a bedroom in the house.
Several minutes later my mother shouted my name. “Read it!” she yelled, shoving the letter and envelope in my hand. The envelope contained a car key, the address to a U-Haul storage facility, and a short letter. The letter read something along the lines of “Dear Maureen, I’ve decided to go to heaven. I love you and I’ll miss you. Tell Danny and Meghan I love them. Take care.”
My mother’s face twisted in knots. She had been on edge for the past year after finding her husband, my father, dead in the basement of the same house. My aunt wasn’t answering her phone and we agreed that we needed to go to her apartment. We rushed towards Jefferson Park. It felt like a scene from a movie.
Each stoplight was an eternity. We pulled up to the three-flat apartment and Eileen’s car was nowhere in sight. We went to the front door and buzzed. No answer. We banged on the door. No answer. A downstairs neighbor appeared and asked what the noise was about. I watched my mother explode into tears.
Was my aunt hanging from the ceiling fan? Had she taken too many pills? It felt like there was a bomb in the room. We were racing against time.
The neighbor let us through the first-floor door. I climbed the stairs to the second-floor unit where my aunt lived. The door was locked. My uncle arrived—my mother must have called him. Two Chicago police officers arrived just after him.
As the story expanded to fit more characters, I wondered where and when I might see my aunt again. The police explained they couldn’t open the door without the proper paperwork. Growing more upset by the minute, my mother frantically dialed my aunt on my flip phone. My aunt and I had a cell phone plan together, just us.
One of the police officers clicked their radio. “There has been a report of a jumper at the Thompson Center.” My mother wailed.
We were ushered into the back of a police SUV. My mother sat in front, my six-foot-four, 250-pound uncle and I squeezed into the back. Our knees pressed against the hard plastic bench as the officer pulled away from my aunt’s building.
We sped to the I-90 expressway. The weather was great, but the Kennedy was a parking lot. The police officer flipped on the sirens and we rode the shoulder of the highway some 15 miles downtown.
As the skyline grew closer, a tire popped. The front right of the vehicle dipped, but the officer drove on. The sky’s orange began to darken as we pulled off the highway onto Washington. The shiny glass-paneled Thompson Center grew closer and closer as we passed underneath the el tracks.
Yellow caution tape flapped in the wind around the east side of the building. Two state troopers with wide-brimmed hats stood in wait for our arrival. By the time we climbed out of the back of the car it was maybe 7 PM.
We were coldly informed there was a suicide. The person who jumped made their way up to the 15th floor via the elevators that connected the building’s basement to the subway station. They climbed over a barrier and jumped to the bottom of the atrium floor. Fifteen floors plus another 30 or so feet down into the marble floor of the food court in the building’s basement. I asked if we could enter to see the aftermath. “No,” the state trooper replied.
They informed us it was in fact my aunt who jumped. They passed along another yellow Scotch bubble mailer envelope. It read “To: Danny and Meghan O’Halloran” on the front and “My sister’s cell -” on the back, with her number neatly written below.
One of the police officers handed me a plastic bag which contained my aunt’s identification cards and shattered bloodstained glasses. Some of her hair was dried on near the hinges.
We were consoled and ushered into a state building across the street. There was a report that needed to be completed, and we had to be present to do so. The state trooper was factual and to the point. He shared with us that he had to drive from Wheaton to downtown, that he hadn’t been to the city in quite some time, and what a long night he had ahead of him.
My uncle spurted curse words and the trooper retaliated by trying to “calm” the situation. There was a threat of arrest and it turned into some strange macho shouting match. It was evident that the trooper had never encountered something like this before. Nothing made sense at this point.
It was well into the night now, and we exited the building across from the still taped-off Thompson Center. Police officers stood guard at the entranceways.
I don’t remember if the police or a friend of my uncle drove us back to my aunt’s apartment. I do remember being westbound on the Kennedy, passing the still packed eastbound traffic into the city.
We bid farewell to my uncle when we arrived at the apartment. My mother and I got into our car; it was nearly one in the morning when I pulled into our driveway. My mother slinked up the stairs. Her face was bright red and full of sorrow. She went to sleep.
I paid a visit to the Thompson Center this January. I reached out to the building manager to ask if I could take photos for this story. They asked if I could provide the $125 dollar leasing fee for access to the building’s atrium, basement, and second floors for one hour. Looking up from the basement of the building, I felt as if I were standing at the bottom of a grave. It was easy to get lost in the red-lattice ceiling and rectangular glass panels reflecting light in all directions. Standing on the polished marble, I imagined how this intricate pattern could seem inviting from above.
I felt compelled to share this story before the building possibly disappears. I have avoided talking about this outside of suicide support groups for a decade. It’s still very confusing, something I’ll never make sense of. My experience as a survivor has changed my own mental well-being. But after having gone through the collective trauma of the pandemic, I’ve felt comfort in sharing hardships with others.
If you think someone you know is struggling, just listen to them. Hear what they are willing to share. The trauma that comes with suicide is far, far more painful than a hard conversation. These days, I try to remind myself to pause and watch the flowers bloom, to savor each sip of water. Take a deep breath as the car stops at a traffic light. See the buildings around me and know that I’m not alone. v