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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Chicago's Willis Tower

Chicago's Willis (Sears) Tower stands head and shoulders above the rest.         
You want to start an argument in Chicago? Just get into a debate with a native as to whether the "historic" 108-story Sears Tower should have been renamed after a financial conglomerate bearing the name "Willis." That's right up there with the argument as to whether saucy Chicago deep-dish pizza is better than the limpy flat stuff from New York. While we were in Chicago this spring, I tried both...meaning the tower and the pizzas. As for the latter, I couldn't decide. As for the naming rights to the tallest building in the western hemisphere next to  New York City's new "Freedom Town" (don't you like the way I put that?) I'd have to stand with the Sears folks, though again there's something of a "who cares?" factor as well. How about we call it the "Leaning Tower of Chicago Pizza" (it does, in fact lean four inches toward the West due to its asymmetrical design configuration). The Pisans in Italy have nothing to worry about.
Chicago as seen from the "whatever ya wanna call it" tower.                                   
Chicago has a history of "radical" architecture. Following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city seemingly exploded with high-rise construction, each new "skyscraper" competing with its next door neighbor to be the tallest. Chicago was the city of architects Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Dankmar Adler. The Windy City also boasted such wind-resistant monuments to the American "edifice complex" as  its massive Merchandise Mart, the Carson Pirie Scott Department Store, the Marshal Field Department Store, the John Hancock Tower, the Chicago Theater, Marina City, the first Ferris Wheel, the Navy Pier ,and Soldier Field, which now resembles the landing site of a giant UFO. Chicago was also the home of the original Sears Tower. What? You thought there was only the one?
Not the place to be in a thunderstorm.
The original Sears Tower, 1906,
George C. Nimmons, architect.
Only fifteen stories, 250 feet tall.
No, the original Sears tower opened in 1906 in what was then the western outskirts of the city in the suburb of North Lawndale, designed by architect, George C. Nimmons. As Sears Towers go, it wasn't much of a tower, only 250 feet tall, fifteen floors, the whole complex barely covering sixteen acres. Yet, if there was a truly "historic" Sears tower this one is it. For over seventy years, it was the home office of the Sears Roebuck Company, famous for its first automatic telephone switchboard, the first long distance operator switchboard, its pneumatic tube system, drinking fountains, escalator (1920), a radio station (WLS), Sears' first retail outlet (1926), the home office of Sears own Allstate Insurance, and its own parking garage. The tower still stands; much of the rest of the complex has since been torn down. That was one of the unintended consequences of the big black behemoth which rose on Chicago's riverfront Wacker Drive between 1970 and 1973.

The tower heads upward, 1972, as Sears heads downward.
The Sears Tower went up at about the same time as Sears Roebuck began its decline. The building was designed by the skyscraper design firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill under the direction of architect, Bruce Graham, and structural engineer, Fazlur Rahman Khan, to be expansive, its upper levels rented out until the needs of Sears Roebuck dictated moving up the tower to the smaller, upper-level floors. They needn't have worried. Department stores (not just Sears) began to fade. The Walmart era (or in Sears case, K-Mart) was on the horizon and moving forward at an astounding pace. Massive juvenile-dinner-cushion-catalogues were rapidly becoming obsolete in an era of TV, newspaper inserts, and pamphlet-size direct mailings. Sears tried to change with the times. Really, they did. The vacating of their beloved namesake tower in 1992, then in selling the building itself in 1994, was just one humbling effort in that direction.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Willis Tower's east entrance (Franklin Street)
Times change. Buildings...not so much...or only with great efforts. When Sears went looking for a new home office in the late 1960s the City of Chicago proposed two sites, one called "Goose Island" (a man made island in the Chicago River), the other, a two square block area on Chicago's double-decker Wacker Drive (officially 322 S. Wacker Drive). Rivers sometimes flood, so Sears chose the higher and dryer of the two. In choosing the site, Sears not only had to purchase fifteen old buildings from over one hundred owners at a cost $2.7-million, but talk the city into vacating Quincy Street which ran down the middle of the property. Civic leaders were most happy to do so.  On paper, Sears' rosy sales projections pushed the building to over 3-million square feet and well past ninety floors into the low hundreds. It finally topped out at a nice, round 108 stories, not coincidentally just slightly taller then the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York (under construction at the time). The Sears Tower would be the tallest building in the world at 1451 feet in height (it might have been taller but the FAA objected). Ground was broken in August, 1970.
The tower lobby--cavernous.
Even as the tower went up, people objected. Law suits were filed. One even contended that construction should cease because it would ruin nearby TV reception. The courts got a  good laugh out of that one (TV reception actually improved after the twin antenna spires were erected atop the building in 1982). Construction was completed in May, 1973 as Sears forked over $150-million and moved in (the equivalent of $800-million today). Within a decade however, Sears' need for office space shrank rather than expanded; major tenants threatened to move out (some did).  Before long, the building was half-empty (or only half-full) depending on your point of view. Even the observation area (now called the Skydeck) was not the tourist draw Sears had expected. Following Sears departure, the building was sold and resold numerous times in a spate of complicated financial moves culminating in 2009 when the London Based, Willis Holding Group, agreed to make the tower its mid-western headquarters contingent upon renaming the building the Willis Tower.
 Fazlur Khan's "Bundled Tube" concept illustrated. Notice the bonding levels
at three intervals along the upward height of the building.
Both from an architectural and engineering standpoint, the Sears/Willis Tower was a landmark breakthrough in high-rise construction. Fazlur Khan has become famous for his invention of what he termed the "bundled tube" structural system. The Sears Tower was the first to employ this engineering concept which comprised nine bundled "tubes" (they're not round but square, by the way) of varying heights. In the case of the Sears tower, two of the tubes were fifty stories in height, two were sixty-six stories tall, three rose to a height of ninety floors, while the other two topped out at the official 108 stories tall. Each tube is essential a separate building bound to the others by bands at various levels moving toward the top. The idea was said to have been inspired by an ad for a pack of cigarettes.
A four-foot thrill ride. Don't worry, the glass doesn't usually break.
From a personal point of view, the tower (whatever the hell you want to name it) is awesome, humbling, spectacular, inspiring, exciting, dumbfounding, each depending upon how and from where you view it. From the outside looking up, it's dizzying. From the towering lobby it's spectacular (lots of balconies and restaurants, security, and information desks). From the sub-basement museum and snack shop, it's virtually all of the above. As you soar upward to the top (with a change of elevators along the way) it's actually a little claustrophobic, and not cheap, either ($19.00). At the top, (floor 104) as you peer out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the 7,500 sq. ft. souvenir shop into the real estate of four states, the effect is breathtaking. The Skydeck is probably best known for its glass "balconies," something like giant drawers with glass floors and walls which slide out some four feet from the edge of the building allowing visitors to look straight down 1,353 feet to the sidewalk below. I skipped the experience. I told my wife, I didn't care to wait an hour in line to be scared to death. I chose to visit the highest men's room in the western hemisphere instead.

1,352 feet straight down.


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