Chicago Skyscraper Spotlight: Willis Tower

If you ask anyone – Chicago native or tourist – to name one building in the city, odds are they’ll say Willis Tower (or perhaps Sears Tower, since the name only recently changed). This goliath skyscraper towers over the skyline, standing as a landmark beacon from vantage points even miles away. But how much do you really know about the famed Willis Tower? Today, we take a closer look at the building’s rich history.

The History of Willis Tower

One of the most contentious debates among Chicagoans this millennium has been whether they’ll call Willis Tower by its new name – or stick to tradition and refer to it as the Sears Tower. The tower was first envisioned in 1969 by the department store and its original namesake, Sears and Roebuck Company. Needing a place to house their 350,000 employees, the leading retailer commissioned architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to complete the task.

And complete the task they did. Groundbreaking on the superstructure occurred a year later in 1970, and when the tower was completed three years later, it stood proud and tall at 108-stories as the world’s tallest building (surpassing even the World Trade Center in New York City). This soaring frame was made possible by a steel-framed bundled-tube construction, and boasts being the first building to use this structurally efficient and economic method.

Though Sears and Roebuck Company sold the tower and moved out eighteen years later, the newly-named Willis Tower continues to host companies such as United Airlines (its largest tenant) and its new namesake, Willis Towers Watson.

Chicago Willis Tower skydeck
Looking down from The Ledge at Willis Tower

Not Your Average Office Building

Having held the title of the world’s tallest building until being unseated from the throne in 1998, Willis Tower naturally had to welcome visitors to come witness the outstanding views. The building’s world-renowned observation deck, the Skydeck, has been open since 1974. Located on the 103rd floor and standing at an elevation of 1,353 feet, visitors (on a clear day) can see as far as Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin as they feel the building sway in the wind. 

In 2009, the same year as the building’s name change, the Skydeck underwent renovation to now include glass boxes that jut four feet out over the skyline, informally dubbed “The Ledge.” Thrill-seeking visitors experience the sensation of floating above the city skyline while enjoying the famous view – a view which draws in 1.9 million visitors annually.

Naturally, such a structure attracts thrillseekers of a different kind as well. In 1981, a man named Dan Goodwin donned a Spiderman suit, some suction cups, camming devices and skyhooks scaled the entire tower. The attempt took him seven hours, despite the Chicago Fire Department’s best attempts to stop him, and he was arrested when he reached the top. In 1999, another Spiderman impersonator, Alain “Spiderman” Robert attempted the same journey as his predecessor, this time with only his bare hands and feet… he was mostly successful.

If that last paragraph tempts you to try your own risky ascent, know that an annual charity event, named SkyRise Chicago, legally allows visitors to climb the tower’s 103-story staircase, making it the world’s tallest indoor stair climb.

Whether it’s from a passing car on Lakeshore Drive, peering up into the sky as you traverse downtown, or running up a 103-story staircase, there’s many ways to appreciate the rich history and beautiful views the Willis Tower brings to Chicago’s city skyline.

Chicago Skyscraper History: The Monadnock Building

As part of our Chicago Skyscraper History series, we’re exploring some of the architectural feats that have defined Chicago, and buildings across the world. Located in Chicago’s South Loop, the Monadnock Building is a 16-story skyscraper, perhaps unassuming considering the height Chicago’s skyscrapers see today. But the Monadnock Building has an important, impactful story to tell.

Phase 1

Following the Depression of 1873-79, Chicago saw a notable building boom across residential and commercial spaces. The Monadnock was commissioned and envisioned as an expansive office space in the heart of the city, and was so large that it was built in two phases. The northern half was completed in 1891 and designed by Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root (of Burnham and Root). Consistent with other buildings of the time, the exterior walls consisted of layered bricks in the load-bearing tradition; however, it was unique in using cantilevered steel to support the undulating bay windows. Also unusual for the time was the lack of ornamentation and stripped-down facade. During the construction, Root tragically passed away, and Burnham’s time consumed by the World’s Columbian Exhibition, the rest of construction would rely on different leadership. 

The Monadnock building

Phase 2

Holabird & Roche took over the design of the second phase just two years later, but the variations in approach are still apparent. With progress in structural engineering and design, the brick facade of the southern portion didn’t need to bear the load of the building. Instead, metal frames were installed to stabilize the building. There were also differences in style; while the northern half was absent of exterior ornamentation, the southern half is considered an early application of classical architectural principles. 

The Monadnock building

When it was completed, the Monadnock Building was the largest office building in the world, and catapulted business potential in Chicago’s South Loop. It captures the moment of change between load-bearing construction and skeleton frame construction. It also employed the first portal system of wind bracing in the country. Unlike many iconic structures of its time, the Monadnock is still standing today. It’s home to businesses and offices, it’s a popular destination for architectural tours and it’s a wonderful example of Chicago’s architectural legacy. 

Chicago Skyscraper History: Home Insurance Building

Chicago boasts many historical architectural feats — it was the host of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the playground of greats including Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. But did you know Chicago was also home to the world’s first ever skyscraper? Today we’re taking a look at the historic Home Insurance Building and how it came to be.

How the World’s First Skyscraper Came to Be

The Great Fire ravaged Chicago in 1871. But it was a devastation that gave way to the opportunity to rebuild anew. As the city looked to rebuild, architects pondered what the next generation of urban structures looked like. With commerce and industry downtown exploding exponentially, these structures had to accommodate more residential space and more office space — leading to verticality as a solution. And with the Great Fire as their lesson, architects also knew these structures had to be much more durable than those that had been so easily destroyed.

Luckily, two pivotal inventions from the mid-19th century made the introduction of soaring steel-framed buildings possible. The first was the safety elevator pioneered by Elisha Otis in 1854, which allowed for the safe transport of elevator passengers. While the top floor of buildings had once been inaccessible and undesirable, the elevator changed that forever. Meanwhile, the Bessemer Converter of 1856 allowed for widespread, large-scale commercial production of steel. 

The culmination of these factors led to the world’s first skyscraper in 1885: the Home Insurance Building, a ten-story, steel-frame fireproof building in downtown Chicago.

Home Insurance Building, 1885, Published by Sprang Printing, Boston
Home Insurance Building, 1885, Published by Sprang Printing, Boston.

A Closer Look at the Home Insurance Building

The Home Insurance Building, designed by William Le Baron Jenney, was located at the corner of Adam and LaSalle Street. It earned the title of the world’s first skyscraper thanks to the combination of its height and its revolutionary steel frame. The frame was composed of wrought and cast iron alongside Bessemer rolled steel beams, leading the building to weigh in at a third of the mass of traditional masonry buildings of the time. 

While two additional stories were added to the Home Insurance Building in 1890, it was eventually demolished in 1931 to make way for the Field Building, now known as the LaSalle Bank Building. Despite the building being gone today, it has forever left its mark on Chicago’s skyscraper history.

Behind Chicago’s Architecture

Chicago is home to the world’s first skyscraper, and since that momentous milestone, has remained a pioneer in the architectural world. But what gives Chicago its trendsetting je ne sais quoi? A unique history drives the diverse array of styles and voices that have forever marked architecture in Chicago, and in the world. 

Epicenter of Manufacturing

By the mid-19th century, Chicago was an essential trading hub, with imports and exports flowing in and out via the Illinois and Michigan Canal and railways. Impressive stockyards, manufacturing, banking and other commercial industries, combined with the country’s first comprehensive sewage system, drew in a large, urban population. That population flocked to a concentrated city-center, where buildings shot skywards to keep pace with the growth.

The Great Chicago Fire

Chicago grew quickly, and fell just as fast. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed 17,500 buildings, leaving devastation in its wake and demanding the city rebuild. With the chance to start fresh, Chicago rebuilt bigger, better and smarter. A city grid was established, adding order and intentionality. Propelled by two crucial inventions, safety elevators and the Bessemer Convertor, Chicago architects could also build higher than ever before. It was during this time that the world’s first skyscraper, the ten-story Home Insurance Company, was built, marking the dawn of a new era in architecture.

City views from an apartment at Optima Signature
City views from an apartment at Optima Signature

The Burnham Plan

Chicago reached an all-time-high during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, with 27.5 global visitors flocking to the city. Planning for the city’s continuous and rapid growth, director of the fair, Daniel Burnham proposed the 1909 Plan of Chicago, or simply the “Burnham Plan.” Their utopian design for the city included lakefront improvement, increased transportation systems and an abundant outer park system. Though not every component outlined came to fruition, the Burnham Plan left a profound mark on contemporary urban planning.

A sweeping view from Club 52 at Optima Signature
A sweeping view from Club 52 at Optima Signature

Modernism Rises

While the Burnham Plan was classically-influenced, up and coming Chicago architects shared new ideas. Louis Sullivan led the legion of Chicago School architecture under the motto “form forever follows function,” a creed later adopted by the Modernist movement. As Sullivan pioneered a new class of skyscrapers that had international impact, his mentee, Frank Lloyd Wright, explored architecture closer to the ground with his Prairie homes. These innovative thinkers helped drive the diversity of Chicago’s architecture, creating a skyline that is storied, varied, impressive and influential. 

Optima adds our own voice into the mix, designing in the Modernist discipline and applying new approaches, to honor a legacy of harmonious and mixed voices in Chicago. 

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