A History of Chicago’s Tallest Building

The Willis Tower was built with state-of-the-art technology and an ageless chutzpah, a word that could translate to an intoxicating feeling of omnipotence.

When planning for what was originally called Sears Tower – a name many still use – began, the company had 350,000 employees. Half of American households had a Sears credit card. The future of the company seemed to be guaranteed for life.

“Being the largest retailer in the world, we thought we should have the largest head office in the world,” Gordon Metcalf, its chairman of the board, said in 1969. His words echoed the biblical account of this which inspired the builders of the Tower of Babel:

“Come on, let’s build ourselves a city, with a tower that rises to the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves. »

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By that standard, the Sears Tower was a success. The 110-story skyscraper at 233 S. Wacker Drive was the tallest in the world for more than two decades and remains popularly known by its maiden name, even though it was renamed for a brokerage firm. London-based insurance company in 2009.

But Sears Roebuck and Co. has all but disappeared. The tower has had several owners and its appeal was at least momentarily diminished in the months following the September 11 terrorist attacks more than 20 years ago.

Today, the city’s tallest skyscraper faces the same pandemic-related issues as office buildings on the Loop, as workers continue to work from home, calling into question the continued vitality of downtown Chicago.

Barclays Bank, a venerable British investment house, once viewed skyscrapers as an economic forecaster. Its data crunchers said cities build their tallest structures on the eve of their decline.

How accurately does this algorithm measure the Sears Tower and the city it overlooks?

At first, the massive building gave a boost to its immediate surroundings. It replaced the unsightly remnants of Chicago’s garment district at the western end of the Loop. “A jumble of 15 buildings blackened with grime,” the Tribune called it. Their demolition surely enhanced the image of Chicago for visitors.

Sears Tower symbolized the staggering power of its parent company. As the skyscraper rose in the early 1970s, the company had around $9 billion in annual revenue. His tower was just as voracious.

At 1,451 feet, it was the tallest building in the world and held that distinction for over two decades. To reach this height required 76,000 tons of steel, 2.5 million cubic feet of concrete, 25,000 miles of plumbing and 43,000 miles of telephone wire.

“On behalf of the people of Chicago, I want to thank Sears for their confidence in the future in the planning and design of the building that will adorn the West Side,” Mayor Richard J. Daley said in 1970.

The Sears Tower spurred redevelopment along the western banks of the Chicago River and in adjacent neighborhoods. But he did not ring the company’s cash registers. By 1991, Walmart’s sales had overtaken those of Sears, which suffered a long decline before filing for bankruptcy in 2018. The company sold Sears Tower and closed stores, but was unable to make payment on the loan to keep it afloat.

Sears moved from the building to the corporate campus at Hoffman Estates in 1992, a move that bruised Chicago’s civic pride and made it difficult for many employees to travel. “How am I going to get there? was the question most asked by staff members, recalls Barb Lehman, the Sears executive who led the exodus of 5,000 people from Chicago to the suburbs.

Sears was founded in 1892 and practically invented teleshopping with a catalog as thick as the Chicago telephone book. It allowed rural families to benefit from the same consumer goods as their urban counterparts with access to shops. Sears provided the model that Amazon would later build on, but it wasn’t nimble enough to adapt to the digital age.

Instead, he focused on brick-and-mortar stores, renowned for replacing tools if they broke, and down-to-earth clothing and appliances. Their shelves reflected the same range of good-better-better offerings as the Sears catalog.

Rival department stores specializing in a segment of the retail market: Marshall Field’s on high-end offerings and fashion-conscious shoppers, Goldblatt’s on bargain goods and budget-conscious shoppers.

In 2002, Sears bought Lands’ End, known for its hip casual clothes, but sales continued to fall.

“Sears is like a dinosaur,” Joe Cushman, who retired as Sears president in 1967, once observed. impulse will reach the brain.”

His successors ignored Cushman’s diagnosis. Maybe ambitious architects tricked them into thinking Sears was too big to fail.

The architects of Sears Tower gave their client a much larger building than the company’s bosses probably imagined.

“Sears would probably have settled for a chunky 50- or 60-story building – something strong, efficient and durable,” said Fazlur Khan, the structural engineer who, along with architect Bruce Graham, drew up the plans. of the tower. “But we wanted something that wouldn’t be too prismatic.”

Khan was apparently excavating the Loop’s most indescribable buildings, a mold Paul Gapp, the Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, agreed they had strayed away from by designing a skyscraper “whose exteriors are a bold, vital and exciting departure from orthodoxy”. mediocrity.”

After Sears released its tower, others bought and sold it, even as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Trizec Properties inherited Sears’ liability for loan payments due to MetLife and, unable to make a payment in 2003, gave the keys to the building to the insurance company.

“There is a bit of tarnish on the diamond now, but it will come back,” Kenneth Szady, an executive at real estate firm Trammell Crow, told the Tribune. “And in the long term, there is a potential upside.”

Clearly, Szady knew how the real estate market worked. Potential buyers continued to bid, and financial institutions were willing to hedge bets on Sears Tower’s value.

Blue chip companies took over the 1.5 million square feet vacated by Sears. As tenants moved out, others moved in. United Airlines canceled Sears’ commuter flight, moving all 2,000 flight controllers and support staff from its Elk Grove Township operations center to Willis Tower in 2009.

He was tempted to make the move in part by Chicago’s offer of around $25 million in incentives, the Tribune reported, while also noting, “United is drawing fire from aviation pundits who ask why he would install his nerve center in a building identified as a potential target of terrorists.

That year, five would-be American terrorists were convicted of plotting to blow up the Sears Tower.

Indeed, the tower’s appeal has already been impacted by Al-Qaeda’s leveling of the World Trade Center towers in New York on 9/11.

“You can completely forget 9/11, but as soon as you go back to this building, you think about it,” said Alain Coque, an executive at New Mark Co., whose clients were looking for offices in the Sears Tower. .

The tower got an emotional boost in 2015, when the Blackstone Group bought it for $1.3 billion, a record high for an office building beyond Manhattan. The New York-based private equity group has softened its hard-edge personality with pops of color and a lower-level mall, investing $500 million in a renovation project dubbed the Catalogue. Restaurants, a food court, and shops have reintroduced the Tower as more than just a workplace.

COVID hit as the project, which just wrapped up in May, was well underway.

“Thursday between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., Tribune reporters counted 75 people passing through its main entrance,” the newspaper reported on September 25, 2020. Before the epidemic, 15,000 employees went there daily.

So the next chapter in the story is unclear. Has remote working become the new norm? Management’s rosy predictions of the tower’s rebound are diluted by unintended caveats such as “shared workspaces.” It looks like a franchise motel touting its business center rather than a sales pitch for an exclusive high-rise.

It would be more persuasive if tower flacks spoke with the authoritative assurance of Sears founder Richard Sears, who built an empire on his catalog’s promises of customer satisfaction.

Once he saw a streetcar conductor drop his pocket watch, which was broken. “Was it a Sears watch? ” He asked. “Yes,” replied the distraught man. Whereupon Richard Sears handed him a new one, saying, “We guarantee our watches won’t fall out of someone’s pocket and break.”

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