'Bold, audacious, daring': Architect Helmut Jahn leaves enduring legacy in Chicago, suburbs

Helmut Jahn made his impact on the world stage, but the renowned architect left a special legacy in Chicago and the suburbs.

Jahn, whose works include the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago and the MetroWest Office Building in Naperville, was killed Saturday in a bicycle crash in Campton Hills. He was 81.

Campton Hills police said Jahn, who kept a farm in St. Charles, was riding near Burlington and Old La Fox roads Saturday afternoon when he was struck by two vehicles. He was pronounced dead at the scene, authorities said.

A native of Germany, Jahn won international recognition and awards for projects around the globe, including United Airlines Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport, the former Citigroup Center (the main entrance to the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center) in Chicago, and the Sony Center in Berlin.

Besides MetroWest in Naperville, his suburban work includes the Oakbrook Terrace Tower in Oakbrook Terrace.

"Helmut was bold, audacious, daring, dashing, a kind of star architect before the term was even coined," said Blair Kamin, former architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune.

Former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey said few Chicagoans, or people passing through the city, can do so without being touched or affected by Jahn's work.

Jahn, who lived in Chicago but spent the weekends at a historic St. Charles farm and was fond of riding his bicycle down local roads, may be best known in Chicago for the Thompson center, but Kamin said it would be a huge mistake to judge him solely by that project.

"That building, of course, is controversial, but his impact in Chicago and around the world extends beyond that building," he said. "His influence is enormous. His United Airlines terminal reintroduced the romance of travel to the type of building that had become kind of cool and soulless and rational.

"More than any other architect, he really extended Chicago's tradition of marrying technological innovation with architectural artistry," Kamin added.

Kamin also noted his work in the suburbs.

"The tallest building in suburban Chicago is the Oakbrook Terrace Tower," he said. "That's a Helmut Jahn skyscraper."

Jahn was pursuing projects up until his death, including one in Moscow. His latest work includes the Pritzker Military Archives Center near Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a skyscraper in the 1000 block of South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

"He is a one-man show," said his widow, Deborah Jahn. "There was nobody else that could keep up with him. His work was everything. It was 100%. He worked night and day at it. He was so focused on it. And I understood that. To be married 50 years to somebody that is that focused, you have to understand that."

Jahn grew up in a suburb of Nuremberg, Germany. After graduating from the Technische Hochschule in Munich, he worked one year for the top architect in Munich, Peter von Seidlein. He then traveled to the United States on a Rotary fellowship and attended the Illinois Institute of Technology.

He was hired at the architecture firm of C.F. Murphy by one of his IIT professors, Gene Summers, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's right-hand man.

Deborah Jahn said her husband's major early influences were the Bauhaus style and Mies van der Rohe.

"He has always been about structure and how the skin of a building fits with that structure," she said.

The Jahn marriage was a work partnership as well.

"We worked together in the business, so I always understood his work," Deborah Jahn said. "I always critiqued everything at night. He always brought everything home for me to look at, to get my opinion on things."

The couple met while Jahn was working on the design for the rebuild of McCormick Place in Chicago, which had been destroyed by fire. Deborah was the interior designer on the project.

"We were just working on it all the time, so I guess it was just a relationship that just kept on going after the building was finished," she said.

The couple lived in Chicago but spent weekends at the St. Charles American Saddlebred horse farm Jahn designed for his wife. Jahn updated the 27-acre landmark Seven Oaks Farm on Red Gate Road, which included an 1863-vintage farmhouse.

The gates, Deborah said, were always open for friends, and the couple did a great deal of entertaining in St. Charles.

"To his friends, he was most loyal. Loyal to a fault," she said. "He was tough on the outside, but inside, he was a pussycat. He had a very soft heart for all his friends."

Bey said that Jahn's work on the Thompson Center suffered from what was done to his design, referring to "the cheapening down, if you will, to bring it within budget, and the deferred maintenance."

But Jahn, he said, bounced back gloriously.

"It's like taking a knockout punch and getting back to winning the fight," he said.

Breaking his career into two phases - pre- and post-Thompson Center - the early phase was characterized by "a sense of flash and dash," Bey said.

The second phase, particularly the work he did with structural engineer Werner Sobek, emerged "a kind of laying open the mysteries of the building, not covering it up with ornament, but laying it bare," he added.

Bey said two of his favorite Jahn works are on the University of Chicago campus: the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, which features a beautiful glass dome, and the South Campus Chiller Plant.

"It's a stunning piece of architecture," he said.

Deborah Jahn said her husband was upset with the latest developments surrounding the Thompson Center, with the state putting it up for sale last week and rumors about it being razed to make room for a high-rise building.

"He has done many drawings of how to save the building itself and still get a high rise on the site," she said. "I think he has given those to a few developers."

Kamin said there's irony in Jahn's death coming shortly after the state announced it is seeking bids for the building.

"My hope is that a look at his great contributions as an architect will persuade the city of Chicago to landmark the building and developers to preserve it and incorporate into a new design rather than tearing it down," he said. "It would be a huge loss for that building to disappear."

In addition to his wife, Hahn is survived by a son Evan, who is a partner in his father's firm JAHN, and two grandchildren.

  The 31-story Oakbrook Terrace Tower was among the suburban projects designed by world-renowned architect Helmut Jahn. Marni Pyke/, 2016
The MetroWest building in Naperville was designed by internationally acclaimed architect Helmut Jahn. The St. Charles resident was killed Saturday in a bicycle crash. Daily Herald File Photo
Architect Helmut Jahn at his Chicago offices on May 9, 2000. Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times
Pedestrians walk past the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. The building is one of several Chicago projects designed by architect Helmut Jahn. Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times, 2015
  Passengers move through people mover inside United Airlines Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport, one of several notable projects designed by architect Helmut Jahn. Mark Welsh/, 2000
Now known as Accenture Tower, the Citrigroup Center at 500 W. Madison in Chicago, was designed by architect Helmut Jahn. Associated Press/2012
Authorities say Helmut Jahn was killed Saturday when he was hit by two vehicles while bicycling through the intersection of Old La Fox and Burlington roads in Campton Hills. Karie Angell Luc for the Daily Herald
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