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Don’t victim-blame architect Helmut Jahn for his tragic bike crash death

7:02 PM CDT on May 10, 2021

Helmut Jahn

Update 5/11/21, 10:00 AM: This morning Campton Hills police department responded to Streetsblog's inquiry about whether there were third-party witness. The article has been edited accordingly.

 Also this morning the Chicago Tribune ran an article with statements about the case from involved motorist Howard Knoll. The article has been edited to include those statements.

In its press release about the case, the department provided the names of both drivers who struck Jahn, and this article originally included them. However, at the request of a family member of the female motorist, her name have been removed from this article, since neither driver has been issued citations or charges. 

Chicago lost one of the giants of its architecture community on Saturday when two motorists struck and killed architect Helmut Jahn, 81, on his bicycle Saturday in west-suburban Campton Hills, near St. Charles.

According to the Campton Hills Police Department, on Saturday, May 8, at about 3:30 p.m. Jahn was riding northeast on Old Lafox Road, a quiet two-lane road, toward its T-shaped intersection with Burlington Road, a busier highway. The junction is about a mile north of the Great Western Trail.

The crash location, about a mile north of the Great Western Trail. Image: Google Maps
The crash location, about a mile north of the Great Western Trail, shown as a dashed line. Image: Google Maps

According to a statement from the police, Jahn "failed to stop at the posted stop sign." Campton Hills Officer Scott Coryell told the Chicago Tribune, “That’s what multiple witnesses relayed. For an unknown reason, he failed to stop.” Coryell later told told Streetsblog the witnesses included the two involved drivers, plus two other motorists who were behind them.

According to the police statement, Howard Knoll was driving silver Chevrolet Trailblazer SUV southeast on Burlington when he struck Jahn in the southeast-bound lane. Then a woman driving a silver Hyundai Sonata northwest struck the cyclist in the northwest-bound lane.

The intersection of Burlington Road and Old Lafox Road, looking southeast. Image: Google Maps
The intersection of Burlington Road and Old LaFox Road, looking southeast. Image: Google Maps

Jahn was pronounced dead on the scene, police said. The female driver was taken to Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva with non-life-threatening injuries. The male driver was uninjured.

Neither involved driver was cited or charged, police said.

In the wake of the tragedy, some online commenters have been quick to blame Jahn for his own death. But even if Jahn did make an error, he didn't deserve to pay for it with his life.

One possible scenario is that Jahn was attempting to make an "Idaho stop," treating the stop sign like a yield sign, which is legal in some states, and mistimed how fast the drivers were approaching. The fact that he was 81 years old makes it less likely he darted into the intersection at a lightning-fast speed, and we don't have definitive information about whether speeding or distracted driving were factors in the drivers' failure to stop in time to avoid the collisions.

According to a Tribune article published on May 11, Knoll said he and his wife were driving to church on the afternoon of the collision, "when suddenly he heard a loud booming noise as his windshield shattered. It happened so quickly he did not realize [he] had hit a man riding his bicycle, he said."

Knoll told the newspaper, “We were just shocked. Even the police chief asked us if we were sure we’re all right. We were just all shaken up because we were driving slow only going about 35 [mph] and all of a sudden boom. He was riding so fast. I pulled right over to the side because we didn’t even know what happened.”

Knoll's comments raise questions about whether he actually had his eyes on the road at the time, since he indicated he didn't see Jahn before the collision. And if Knoll didn't even "realize [he] had hit a man riding his bicycle" when he struck the victim, how would he have known how fast the octogenarian was riding?

Some commenters on a local sustainable transportation Facebook discussion group even went so far as to say that Jahn deserved his fate, not only for reportedly running the stop sign, but because of past allegations of sexist behavior by the architect. That's a truly heartless thing to say about the death of a fellow human being.

"The point isn't whether or not it's [Jahn's] fault," said one person in the group. "The point is it sucks when cyclists get killed even if it's their fault."

Regardless of your perspective on Jahn's career, he inarguably left his mark on the world with many distinctive postmodern buildings in Chicago and elsewhere. However the future of one of his most prominent designs, the Thompson Center (local bike messengers nicknamed it the Tom-Tom for its drum-like shape), which houses offices for the state of Illinois and the CTA's Clark/Lake station, is currently in doubt.

View from an upper floor of the Thompson Center. Photo: John Greenfield
View from an upper floor of the Thompson Center. Photo: John Greenfield

Built in 1985 when Jahn, a German immigrant, was only 39, the salmon-and-baby-blue-colored structure is viewed as ugly by some Chicagoans, iconic by others. I, for one, am always inspired by its lofty atrium, and it's a fun fact that the building played a starring role in the Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal cop buddy flick "Running Scared." However, the structure reportedly has hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance, and last week the state began soliciting bids for the building's sale, which could lead to its demolition.

Other iconic local Jahn designs noted by the Tribune include the Xerox Center at 55 W. Monroe St., the modernist addition to the Art Deco Board of Trade Building, and Terminal 1 at O'Hare, including a tunnel with moving sidewalks between concourses, memorably illuminated with a rainbow neon light show.

The connecting tunnel between Concourses B and C of Terminal 1, with Michael Hayden's neon installation "Sky's the Limit." Photo: Wikipedia

Hopefully it will be some comfort to Jahn's family members that his legacy will live on in the structures he leaves behind. They should also know that many of us who ride bikes in Chicagoland feel empathy for him due to the way he left this world.

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