October 16, 2018

Photo Essay: A Tale of Two Towers in Chicago

For all the times I had to go to Chicago for work back in the music industry, I never got to be a real tourist. And then I stopped having to go altogether, about 10 years ago.

So, when I was back in Chicago last week for a conference, I set out for the top of the Sears Tower—by hell or high water.

Only, now it's called the Willis Tower—and while the water underfoot wasn't high per se, it had been pouring rain that day.

I asked lobby security, "Where's the tourist trap?" and was pointed me down an escalator, where a ticket-taker greeted me with a warning: "It's zero to one-mile visibility up there." Normally, you can see as far as Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

"I'm going anyway!" I declared. When else is there no line to the top of the tallest building in the world? (At least, from 1973 to 1998.)

Sears may have become irrelevant to modern shoppers (having filed for bankruptcy this week), but even a name change to "Willis Tower" in 2009 couldn't keep visitors from referring to it as the Sears Tower, even nearly a decade later. (And even after Sears actually sold the tower in 1988.)

I probably had a more memorable experience up there than most others, having braved the rain and arrived just in time for the late-day clouds to swirl around me, as I stood on a plexiglass ledge for a prime photo opp, levitating 103 floors above the skyline (making it the highest observation deck in the country).

The next morning, with skies much clearer and air 40 degrees cooler, I set off for the second-most famous tower in Chicago, the predecessor to the Sears Tower completed in 1969, also by architect Fazlur Rahman Khan (who served as engineer), the John Hancock Center.

As in the case with Sears, John Hancock Insurance gave up the naming rights to it in 2013, but that hasn't stopped anyone from continuing to say the name colloquially.

Although the "360 Chicago" observation deck experience offers a view of the Chicago skyline (from, as the name suggests, all directions) on just the 94th floor (compared to the Sears Tower's 103rd floor)... certainly is no worse than its sibling supertall skyscraper (better weather notwithstanding).

And fans of the Sears Tower can get a good look at it from the John Hancock Center...

...which is currently unnamed (save for its address, 875 North Michigan Avenue) until somebody else secures the naming rights to it.

I actually prefer the tapered obelisk of the John Hancock Center, with its X-shaped exterior braces, over the cigarette pack of the Sears Tower.

But either way, after years of visiting, I feel like I've finally seen Chicago for the first time.

I certainly haven't seen everything, and I probably never will. But climbing to the top of its two tallest towers turned out to be a good way to take in a lot of view all at once—and to make this trip really count.

Those views will last me, even if I don't return to the Windy City for another 10 years.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Chicago's Chapel in the Sky (Or, The World's Tallest Church Building)
Photo Essay: Transforming the View of LA
Photo Essay: Rising to the Top of the West

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