Every time I see a story about the pending sale or demise of the State of Illinois Building, it reminds me that we once had quite a relationship

Every time I see a story about the pending sale or demise of the State of Illinois Building, it reminds me that we once had quite a relationship
The State of Illinois building under construction in 1982, about the time Paul McGrath got interested in it. Photo/Chicago Tribune

It all started about the time this picture was taken.  My husband at the time, the late award-winning investigative reporter Paul McGrath, got interested in the building.  And for at least a year, the construction of the State of Illinois building was part of our marriage.

We had a new baby, Molly, and I wasn't thrilled that Paul kept leaving the house to go to one seedy coffee shop after another to hear from the dark side.  He left day after day to talk to secret sources, and then he left to talk to others who corroborated those secret sources.  It was like a true spy thriller.

He was a real pro, who understood that politics and crookedness went far beyond following the money.  He understood that Chicago deals involved deeply nuanced relationships that others take for granted.  He didn't take them for granted.  He analyzed them.  And he studied them.

He could fathom every detail about how politicians, bankers, union bosses and crooks cooked things up to scratch each other's backs.

The story of how and why and where the State of Illinois building was built was like that.  And Paul spent a lot of time piecing it together, with information from people whose identities I still don't know.

But he was out there in the coffee shops and he came back with a wad of notes day after day.  He got hung up on, dissed and ignored by the main players in the story many times.  But he kept calling.  Until he put every detail together and the story was published in Chicago Magazine in September, 1983, when our daughter turned a year old and took her first steps across our living room floor.

The headline was "The House That Big Jim Built."

Chicago Magazine never digitized the story.  I have a few copies of the magazine, and I keep one handy to look at every now and then.  And somewhere in my basement are his notes.  And someday when I finally get to it, I'll find them.  I'm not so sure I'll even be able to read them.  Or figure out who it was he was talking to.

But there were many highlights from that long and winding tale that Paul brought to life.  Forgotten. Now that the building has become a white elephant.

One of the many complicated things that Paul explained in the story was that Governor Jim Thompson was who got the ball rolling.  "It appears that the Governor has deliberately rammed the plan through, partly to repay political debts," he wrote.

Thompson wanted to pay the Teamsters back by buying the property at Clark and Randolph where the Sherman House once was; the sale created a windfall for a Teamster pension fund.  They'd made a $5.24 million loan on the building and the owners were defaulting.  The teamsters received $13.2 million for the property from the State.

The union had supported Thompson with campaign endorsements and contributions.  There had been many other locations suggested, but this is the one that Thompson wanted.  "The truth is," Paul wrote, "that the governor threw out the planning studies and personally picked the location...."

Then there was also the late Eugene Heytow, Thompson's personal banker and mortgagee (Amalgamated Trust and Savings Bank), who he appointed to the Capital Development Board.  He also became chairman of the McCormick Place Board.  Heytow's bank had been receiving deposits from the Teamsters' Central States Pension and Health & Welfare Funds for years.

In fact, Allen Dorfman, a convicted felon who was murdered gangland style in Lincolnwood in 1983, was a consultant to the funds, and recommended granting loans of $21.8 million in the early 1970s to Heytow and his partners, Paul wrote, to build the McCormick Inn (a failed prospect and a suspicious story in itself that Paul addressed in the article).  Even though Heytow told Paul he didn't know Dorfman, Paul found out that Heytow's bank gave Dorfman's insurance agency a $3 million loan to buy Frank Sinatra's jet.  Two months after that, Heytow's bank  began receiving extra Teamster deposits and also began being paid a fee to process 60,000 pension checks a month.

Morse/Diesel, a company that had done substandard work--and continued to do so--got the job of construction manager for the State of Illinois Building.  Paul explained that the company had given its business to Cook County Board President George Dunne's politically connected insurance company.  The CDB executive director Donald Glickman was put under investigation for that pick, Paul explained, and Thompson got his personal lawyer to represent him at State expense.  And a former prosecutor who had worked under Thompson was hired to conduct an investigation of the CDB.

Why did the Thompson inner circle rally around Glickman? Paul asked that question in the article.  Again, that became a whole story in itself.  Including an extra episode:  Thompson asked Heytow to hold a fundraiser for him; and Heytow asked Glickman to help.  They also brought in the director of CDB operations to assist.  Among other big names.  This round of conflicts led to Heytow's resignation.  And Glickman's as well--from another contract Thompson had arranged for him when he lost his CDB job after the initial investigation.  Morse/Diesel got it's contribution back, as did the building's architects Murphy/Jahn, among others.

Paul was right about the final cost of the building, too.  But he also added the cost of interest on the bonds.  In today's dollars the building may have cost taxpaers upwards of a billion bucks!

Paul interviewed a lot of people for the story, which ran several full pages in the magazine.  Including Helmut Jahn, of course.  Paul said that Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was supposed to get the job.  But that the word within the inner circle had always been Murphy/Jahn.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the story were the changes that the architects had to make as costs mounted.  Plans for a waterfall in the lobby were put on hold, for instance.  The glass walls of the building had to become single-paned.   "We wanted a little better curtain wall," Jahn told Paul.  "I think part of the problem that it doesn't look very high quality is that it's not very expensive.  This is the wall that we could afford," Jahn lamented.

There was another flap that Paul found out about:  some of the steel used was bought from South Africa--due to an emergency when steel for the project was stolen.  And Paul called a $250,000 private elevator to carry the governor up to his office on the 16th floor a "political embarrassment."  It wasn't deemed safe for him to ride the glass elevators in the atrium, Paul wrote.

"When you walk by the State of Illinois Center now going up," Paul said at the end of the article, "it is easy to see that Governor Thompson and his circle are the builders, busily creating the world that the rest of us live in. But even through the glass walls of the completed building, we will never be able to see the inner workings of that world."

But whatever happens to the building in the future--if it gets torn down or if it sells and gets a new life--back in September of 1983, Paul McGrath really did give everyone who read his long and winding and information-packed article the ability to see the inner workings of that world.

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