ML - Michigan Avenue

2013 - Issue 3 - May/June

Michigan Avenue - Niche Media - Michigan Avenue magazine is a luxury lifestyle magazine centered around Chicago’s finest people, events, fashion, health & beauty, fine dining & more!

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visited it last year. Films like The Dark Knight, Transformers 3, and the June 14 release Man of Steel have used Willis Tower's silhouette for scenes of urban drama. Though Willis Group Holdings, an English insurance giant, got flack for buying the naming rights (and many Chicagoans still refuse to use the new moniker), the tallest building in North America is doing just fine, thanks. SETTING THE FOUNDATION The idea for this remarkable work of architecture began in 1968 when Sears Roebuck and Company, then the nation's largest retailer, decided to leave its West Side headquarters. That 41-acre campus, opened in 1906, was considered a wonder of its time, too, where unimaginable volumes of merchandise were shipped to every corner of the country. Halcyon days at the old Sears complex ended for many reasons, among them the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rage that burned the neighborhoods a few blocks away. Sears Roebuck might have moved to the suburbs (as it later did), but then Mayor Richard J. Daley intervened. While rust-belt cities all over America were threatened with disinvestment at the time, Chicago dodged downtown decay, with Daley's immense power paving the way for a veritable renaissance. Construction in the Loop—big modernist projects like the Prudential Building and Daley Center—was largely behind the earnest sobriquet: The City That Works. To join the trend, Sears chairman Gordon Metcalf brought in Tony and Jim Peters, brash real estate brokers with Cushman & Wakefield in New York. They analyzed development, looked at possible sites, and found that the block bounded by Wacker, Jackson, Franklin, and Adams might be available. The parcel was assembled, then the Peters brothers found a legal team to convince the City Council to approve what the mayor had already blessed: the sale of a stretch of Quincy Street that ran through it. At the time it was described as a sweet "bargain basement" deal. The city even paid to reroute water and sewer lines. Metcalf had tonier neighborhoods in mind, such as Michigan Avenue beyond the Illinois Central Tracks. Wacker was not fashionable at all at the time, but Sears reasoned that it was close to Union and Northwestern Stations, where many of its 7,000 headquarters employees would march to get 106 to their homes in the suburbs. One of the owners of the eventual site optimistically declared, "Wacker is becoming the Park Avenue of Chicago." And Wacker did improve, with Sears (a master of critical mass) helping the process considerably. REACHING NEW HEIGHTS Sears did not set out to build the tallest building in the world—it set out to build the most efficient. Another player in the project was the world's largest interior design firm, Saphier, Lerner, Schindler of New York. They conducted what amounted to time-motion studies on all 90 of the departments that would go into the new building. "Design," principal Lawrence Lerner said at the time, "is the discipline of function, logistics, and economics, carried on in the ambiance of aesthetics." For Sears's new headquarters, SLS postulated 2 million square feet, which translated into 50 stories of 40,000 square feet of usable space each. Future needs would require upward of 4 million, so the new Sears building needed to include excess space to grow into. Not too surprisingly, early designs were less than elegant—the worst of which was remembered as two faceless boxes side by side. At this point the preeminent architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill applied the niceties of world-class skyscraper design to the project. SOM was completing the John Hancock Center and had been studying ways to build ever-taller buildings both economically and beautifully. SOM's structural engineer Fazlur Khan had devised the X-bracing for Hancock, after which he studied an alternative concept, the "tube frame," which might push the envelope even higher. Khan and SOM architect Bruce Graham worked together to create what they called "bundled-tube" construction, as multiple tubes shared walls and helped support one another. Sears would have nine such tubes (75 feet by 75 feet each) rising to different heights, two of them to the top. Graham told the story that he was discussing the concept with Khan over lunch at the Chicago Club when he pulled out a pack of Camels. He tapped the pack and several cigarettes came partly out, each to a different level. "This is the form," said Graham. SOM's form-follows-function design developed. When architects had met all of Sears's space needs, they realized that they were a dozen or so stories short of the world's tallest building. (That was New York's 1,368-foot World Trade Center, completed in 1971.) Sears agreed to go to 110 floors, or 1,450 feet. The result was that the first 50 floors had enormous floor plates and offered maximum organizational efficiency. Smaller floor plates above, with plentiful corner offices, would provide desirable rental space for law firms and consultants. Outside, its profile of setbacks made it an "exciting departure from orthodox mediocrity," wrote Paul Gapp, the Tribune architecture critic at the time. For Chicago, and especially for those who worked there, the Tower was an amazing vertical city. It had a health club, an infirmary, and a daily population that people enjoyed noting was equal to that of Lake Forest. And like Henry Blake Fuller's fictional skyscraper The Clifton in his 1893 novel The Cliff-Dwellers, the Tower had its symbols of urban mobility. A ground-floor bar called The Dinghy inspired comparisons at the time to the legendary Division Street singles hangout Butch McGuire's. Execs aspired to membership in the Metropolitan Club on the 65th floor, which had celery-green carpet, aquamarine velvet divans, and a daily prime beef luncheon. For almost everyone at the time, "Working in the world's tallest building makes you feel a little bit important," said a Sears Roebuck record clerk. Slowly but inevitably, the Tower went from landmark to historic icon. Not long after the building's opening, Alexander Calder installed his famous mobile sculpture, Universe, in the lobby. In 1981, a climber from Maine donned a Spider-Man suit and scaled the west face of the tower using suction cups. In 1985, a new atrium lobby attracted the kind of street life that the soaring tower deserved. And in 1986's Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris and friends visited the Skydeck as part of the most famous day of playing hooky in the history of cinema. Icons are also measured against bumps along the way. Sears moved out in 1995, selling the tower for $1 billion (against construction costs of $150 million) in a period when the company was losing its leadership in retail. In 1998, the Tower lost its "world's tallest" title to Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Anguished recalculating of what really constituted the "world's tallest" (antennas and highest occupied floor were at issue) ended when the Petronas itself was surpassed by PHOTOGRAPHY BY MCSHANE FLEMING (CONSTRUCTION); CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM'S HEDRICH-BLISSING COLLECTION (BUILDING); SKIDMORE, OWINGS & MERRILL LLP (MEN) WILLIS TOWER REMAINS THE STANDARD AGAINST WHICH OTHER SUPER-TALL STRUCTURES ARE JUDGED. MICHIGANAVEMAG.COM 104-109_MA_FEAT_Heritage_Sum_Fall_13.indd 106 4/16/13 6:02 PM

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