The Willis Tower in April 2019
|Former names||Sears Tower (1973–2009)|
|Tallest in the world from 1973 to 1998[I]|
|Preceded by||World Trade Center (1970)|
|Surpassed by||Petronas Twin Towers|
|Type||Office, observation, communication|
|Location||233 S. Wacker Drive|
Chicago, Illinois 60606
|Current tenants||United Airlines|
|Named for||Willis Group|
|Architectural||442.1 m (1,450 ft)|
|Tip||527 m (1,729 ft)|
|Top floor||412.7 m (1,354 ft)|
|Floor count||110 (+3 basement floors)|
|Floor area||416,000 m2 (4,477,800 sq ft)|
|Lifts/elevators||104, with 16 double-decker elevators, made by Westinghouse, modernized by Schindler Group|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Skidmore, Owings and Merrill |
Fazlur Rahman Khan
|Main contractor||Morse Diesel International|
|I. ^ Willis Tower at Emporis|
The Willis Tower (colloquial: Sears Tower, its name for 36 years) is a 110-story, 1,450-foot (442.1 m) skyscraper in Chicago, Illinois. At completion in 1973, it surpassed the World Trade Center in New York to become the tallest building in the world, a title it held for nearly 25 years; it was the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere for 41 years, until the new One World Trade Center surpassed it in 2014. Willis Tower is considered a seminal achievement for architect Fazlur Rahman Khan. It is currently the third-tallest building in the United States and the Western hemisphere – and the 23rd-tallest in the world. Each year, more than one million people visit its observation deck, the highest in the United States, making it one of Chicago's most popular tourist destinations. The structure was renamed in 2009 by the Willis Group as a term of its lease.
As of April 2018[update], the building's largest tenant is United Airlines, which moved its corporate headquarters from 77 West Wacker Drive (then the United Building) in 2012, occupying around 20 floors. Other major tenants include the building's namesake Willis Group and law firms Schiff Hardin and Seyfarth Shaw. Morgan Stanley plans to move to the building in 2019 and become its fourth-largest tenant by 2020.
In 1969, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was the largest retailer in the world, with about 350,000 employees. Sears executives decided to consolidate the thousands of employees in offices distributed throughout the Chicago area into one building on the western edge of Chicago's Loop. Sears asked its outside counsel, Arnstein, Gluck, Weitzenfeld & Minow (now known as Arnstein & Lehr, LLP) to suggest a location. The firm consulted with local and federal authorities and the applicable law, then offered Sears two options: the Goose Island area northwest of downtown, and a two-block area bounded by Franklin Street on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Wacker Drive on the west and Adams Street on the north, with Quincy Street running through the middle from east to west.
After selection of the latter site, permits to vacate Quincy Street were obtained. Attorneys from the Arnstein firm, headed by Andrew Adsit, began buying the properties parcel by parcel. Sears purchased 15 old buildings from 100 owners and paid $2.7 million to the City of Chicago for the portion of Quincy Street the project absorbed.
Sears, which needed 3,000,000 square feet (280,000 m2) of office space for its planned consolidation and predicted growth, commissioned architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Their team of architect Bruce Graham and structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan designed the building as nine square "tubes" (each essentially a separate building), clustered in a 3×3 matrix forming a square base with 225-foot (69 m) sides. All nine tubes would rise up to the 50th floor of the building, where the northwest and southeast tubes terminate. The northeast and southwest tubes reach the 66th floor; the north, east, and south tubes end at the 90th. The remaining west and center tubes reach 108 floors.
The Sears Tower was the first building to use this innovative design. It was both structurally efficient and economic: at 1,450 feet, it provided more space and rose higher than the Empire State Building and cost much less per unit area. The system would prove highly influential in skyscraper construction and has been used in most supertall buildings since, including the world's current tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. To honor Khan's contributions, the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois commissioned a sculpture of him for the lobby of the Willis Tower.
Sears decided to focus their initial occupancy on housing their merchandise group, renting out the remaining space to other tenants until needed. The latter floor areas had to be designed to a smaller footprint with a high window-space to floor-space ratio to be attractive to prospective lessees. Smaller floorplates required a taller structure to yield sufficient square footage. Skidmore architects proposed a tower with large, 55,000-square-foot (5,100 m2) floors in the lower part of the building with gradually tapered floorplates in a series of setbacks, which would give the tower its distinctive look.
As Sears continued to offer optimistic projections for growth, the tower's proposed floor count increased rapidly into the low hundreds, surpassing the height of New York's unfinished World Trade Center to become the world's tallest building. The height was restricted by a limit imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to protect air traffic. The financing of the tower was provided by Sears. It was topped with two antennas for television and radio broadcasting. Sears and the City of Chicago approved the design and the first steel was put in place in April 1971. The structure was completed in May 1973. The construction cost about US$150 million, equivalent to $850 million in 2019 dollars. By comparison, Taipei 101, built in 2004, cost the equivalent of US$2.21 billion in 2018 dollars.
Black bands appear on the tower around the 29th–32nd, 64th–65th, 88th–89th, and 104th–108th floors. These elements are louvres to ventilate the building's environmental support systems and obscure its belted trusses. Even though regulations did not require a fire sprinkler system, the building was equipped with one from the beginning. There are around 40,000 sprinkler heads in the building, installed at a cost of $4 million.
In February 1982, two television antennas were added to the structure, increasing its total height to 1,707 feet (520.3 m). The western antenna was later extended, bringing the overall height to 1,729 feet (527 m) on June 5, 2000, to improve reception of local NBC station WMAQ-TV.
As the construction of the building neared the 50th floor, lawsuits for an injunction were filed seeking to stop the building from exceeding 67 floors. The suits alleged that above that point television reception would deteriorate and cause property values to plummet. The first suit was filed by the state attorney in neighboring Lake County on March 17, 1972. A second suit was filed on March 28 in Cook County Circuit Court by the villages of Skokie, Northbrook, and Deerfield, Illinois.
Sears filed motions to dismiss the Lake and Cook County lawsuits and on May 17, 1972, Judge LaVerne Dickson, Chief of the Lake County Circuit Court, dismissed the suit, saying, "I find nothing that gives television viewers the right to reception without interference. They will have to find some other means of ensuring reception such as taller antennas." The Lake County state's attorney filed a notice of appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ultimately decided in favor of Sears. In his decision on June 12, Judge Charles R. Barrett contended the plaintiffs did not have a right to undistorted television reception.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Citizens' Committee for Broadcasting requested the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) halt construction so the building would not interfere with television reception. On May 26, 1972, the Commission declined to take action on the grounds it did not have jurisdiction.
On June 30, 1972, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the previous rulings by Lake and Cook County Circuit Courts, by a letter order with a written opinion to follow. On September 8, 1972, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the FCC decision. The court's written opinion was filed on September 20, 1972. In affirming the lower court rulings, it held that "absent legislation to the contrary, defendant has a proprietary right to construct a building to its desired height and that completion of the project would not constitute a nuisance under the circumstances of this case." 
Sears's optimistic growth projections were not met. Competition beyond its traditional rivals (like Montgomery Ward) arose from retailing giants including Kmart, Kohl's, and Walmart. Nor did the tower draw as many tenants as hoped. It stood half-vacant for a decade as a surplus of office space materialized in the 1980s.
In 1990, the law firm of Keck, Mahin & Cate decided to move into a development that would become 77 West Wacker Drive, rebuffing Sears's attempts to entice the firm to stay. Just two years later, Sears began moving its own offices out of the building.
In 1994, the tower was sold to Boston-based AEW Capital Management with financing from MetLife. At that time it was one-third vacant. By 1995, Sears had completed its move to a new campus in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
In 1997, Toronto-based TrizecHahn Corporation (then managing the CN Tower under lease) purchased the building for $110 million, assuming $4 million in liabilities and a $734 million mortgage. In 2003, Trizec surrendered the building to lender MetLife. In 2004, MetLife sold the building to a group of investors including New York-based Joseph Chetrit, Joseph Moinian; Lloyd Goldman; Joseph Cayre and Jeffrey Feil; and Skokie, Illinois-based American Landmark Properties. The quoted price was $840 million, with $825 million held in a mortgage.
The building lost several major tenants in the early 2000s due in part to perceived terrorism risk following the September 11 attacks. In June 2006, seven men were arrested by the FBI and charged with plotting to destroy the tower. Deputy FBI Director John Pistole described their plot as "more aspirational than operational". The case went to court in October 2007; after three trials, five of the suspects were convicted and two acquitted. The alleged leader of the group, Narseal Batiste, was sentenced to 13½ years in prison. Meanwhile, the building's largest tenant at this time, Ernst & Young, moved to North Wacker Drive in early 2009.
In February 2009, the owners announced they were considering a plan to paint the structure silver; this plan was later dropped. The paint would have "rebranded" the building and highlighted its advances in energy efficiency for an estimated $50 million.
Since 2007, the owners considered building a hotel on the north side of Jackson, between Wacker and Franklin, near the entrance to the observation deck. The tower's parking garage is beneath the plaza. Building owners say the second building was considered in the original design. The plan was eventually cancelled as city zoning does not permit construction of such a tall tower there.
Although Sears's naming rights expired in 2003, the building continued to be called the Sears Tower for several years. In March 2009, London-based insurance broker Willis Group Holdings agreed to lease a portion of the building and obtained the naming rights. On July 16, 2009, the building was officially renamed Willis Tower. On August 13, 2012, United Airlines announced it would move its corporate headquarters from 77 West Wacker Drive to Willis Tower.
In 2015, the Blackstone Group completed purchase of the tower for a reported $1.3 billion, the highest price ever paid for a U.S. property outside New York City. In 2017, Blackstone announced a $500 million "facelift" for the property to include a six-story commercial complex in the tower's plaza area.
The Willis Tower observation deck, called the Skydeck, opened on June 22, 1974. Located on the 103rd floor at an elevation of 1,353 feet (412.4 m), it is the highest observation deck in the United States and one of Chicago's most famous tourist attractions. Tourists can experience how the building sways in wind and see far over the plains of Illinois and across Lake Michigan to Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin in clear conditions. Elevators reach the top in about 60 seconds, allowing occupants to feel the change in pressure as they ascend. The Skydeck competes with the John Hancock Center's observation floor a mile and a half away but reaching 323 feet (98.5 m) lower. Some 1.7 million tourists visit annually. A second observation deck on the 99th floor serves as a backup. The tourist entrance can be found on the south side of the building along Jackson Boulevard.
In January 2009, a major renovation of the Skydeck was begun, including the installation of retractable glass balconies which extend approximately 4 feet (1.2 m) from the facade of the 103rd floor, overlooking South Wacker Drive. The all-glass boxes, informally dubbed "The Ledge", allow visitors to see the street below. The boxes, which can accommodate 5 short tons (4.5 metric tons), opened to the public on July 2, 2009. On May 29, 2014, the laminated glass flooring of one of the boxes shattered while visitors were inside but there were no injuries. The flooring on that same box shattered on June 12, 2019.
The Willis Tower remains the second tallest building in the Americas (after One World Trade Center) and the Western Hemisphere. With a pinnacle height of 1,729 feet (527 m), it is the third-tallest freestanding structure in the Americas, 86 feet (26.2 m) shorter than Toronto's CN Tower. It is the eighth-tallest freestanding structure in the world by pinnacle height.
At 1,482.6 feet (451.9 m) tall, including decorative spires, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, controversially claimed to be the tallest building in the world in 1998. In the ensuing controversy, four categories of "tallest building" were created. Of these, Petronas was the tallest in the category of height to the top of architectural elements, meaning spires but not antennas.
Taipei 101 in Taiwan claimed the record in three of the four categories in 2004 to become recognized as the tallest building in the world. Taipei 101 surpassed the Petronas Twin Towers in spire height and the Sears Tower in roof height and highest occupied floor. The tower retained one record: its antenna exceeded Taipei 101's spire in height. In 2008, Shanghai World Financial Center claimed the records of tallest building by roof and highest occupied floor.
Upon completion, One World Trade Center in New York City surpassed the Willis Tower through its structural and pinnacle heights, but not by roof, observation deck elevation, or highest occupied floor.
Until 2000 the tower did not hold the record for being the tallest building by pinnacle height. From 1969 to 1978, this record was held by John Hancock Center, whose antenna reached a height of 1,500 feet (457.2 m), 49 feet (14.9 m) taller than the Sears Tower's original height. One World Trade Center became taller by pinnacle height with the addition of a 359-foot (109.4-meter) antenna, bringing its total height to 1,727 feet (526.4 m). In 1982, two antennas were installed which brought its total height to 1,707 feet (520.3 m), making it taller than the John Hancock Center but not One World Trade Center. However, the extension of the tower's western antenna in June 2000 to 1,729 feet (527 m) allowed it to just barely claim the title of tallest building by pinnacle height.
On May 25, 1981, Dan Goodwin, wearing a homemade Spider-Man suit while using suction cups, camming devices, and sky hooks, and despite several attempts by the Chicago Fire Department to stop him, made the first successful outside ascent of the tower. Goodwin was arrested at the top after the seven-hour climb and was later charged with trespassing. Goodwin stated that the reason he made the climb was to call attention to shortcomings in high-rise rescue and firefighting techniques. After a lengthy interrogation by Chicago's District Attorney and Fire Commissioner, Goodwin was officially released from jail.
In August 1999, French urban climber Alain "Spiderman" Robert, using only his bare hands and bare feet, scaled the building's exterior glass and steel wall all the way to the top. A thick fog settled in near the end of his climb, making the last 20 stories of the building's glass and steel exterior slippery.
Although Sears sold the tower in 1994 and had completely vacated it by 1995, the company retained the naming rights to the building through 2003. The new owners were rebuffed in renaming deals with CDW Corp in 2005 and the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2008. London-based insurance broker Willis Group Holdings, Ltd. leased more than 140,000 square feet (13,000 m2) of space on three floors in 2009. A Willis spokesman said the naming rights were obtained as part of the negotiations at no cost to Willis and the building was renamed Willis Tower on July 16, 2009.
The naming rights are valid for 15 years, so it is possible that the building's name could change again as soon as 2024. The Chicago Tribune joked that the building's new name reminded them of the oft-repeated "What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?" catchphrase from the 1980s American television sitcom Diff'rent Strokes and considered the name-change ill-advised in "a city with a deep appreciation of tradition and a healthy ego, where some Chicagoans still mourn the switch from Marshall Field's to Macy's". This feeling was confirmed in a July 16, 2009 CNN article in which some Chicago area residents expressed reluctance to accept the Willis Tower name, and in an article that appeared in the October 2010 issue of Chicago magazine that ranked the building among Chicago's 40 most important, the author pointedly refused to acknowledge the name change and referred to the building as the "Sears Tower". Time magazine called the name change one of the top 10 worst corporate name changes and pointed to negative press coverage by local news outlets and online petitions from angry residents. The naming rights issue continued into 2013, when Eric Zorn noted in the Chicago Tribune that "We're stubborn about such things. This month marked four years since the former Sears Tower was re-christened Willis Tower, and the new name has yet to stick."
Many broadcast station transmitters are located at the top of Willis Tower. Each list is ranked by height from the top down. Stations at the same height on the same mast indicate the use of a diplexer into the same shared antenna. Due to its extreme height, FM stations (all class B) are very limited in power output.
NOAA Weather Radio station KWO39 transmits off the tower at 162.550 MHz. Programmed by the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Chicago, it is equipped with Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME), which sets off a siren on specially-programmed weather radios to alert of an impending hazard.
The building has appeared in numerous films and television shows set in Chicago such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where Ferris and company visit the observation deck. Late Night with Conan O'Brien introduced a character called The Sears Tower Dressed In Sears Clothing when the show visited Chicago in 2006. The building is also featured in History Channel's Life After People, in which it and other human-made landmarks suffer from neglect without humans around, collapsing two hundred years after people are gone. In an episode of the television series Monk, Adrian Monk tries to conquer his fear of heights by imagining that he is on top of the tower. In an episode of Kenan and Kel, Kenan Rockmore and Kel Kimble decide to climb to the top of the tower so Kenan can declare his love for a girl, but they end up getting stuck on a window washer's platform 110 stories up.
The Chicago Franchise frequently features locations where the tower is visible in the distance.
In the movie Category 6: Day of Destruction, it is damaged by a tornado.
In "1969", a Season 2 episode of the science-fiction series Stargate SG-1, the SG-1 team accidentally travels back in time to the titular year. At one point the team travels though Chicago and the tower is shown (erroneously, since construction did not begin on the tower until two years later in 1971).
In the 2004 film I, Robot, the tower is shown updated in the year 2035 with new triangular antennas. It is portrayed as having its height surpassed by the fictional USR (United States Robotics) Building.
In the 2011 film Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it is featured in a number of scenes. The most notable one is when the N.E.S.T team tries to enter the city using V-22 Osprey helicopters. They use Willis Tower for cover before using wing suits to descend into the city streets.
In the 2014 film Divergent, it is shown abandoned and decayed in a future Chicago.
In the 2015 film Jupiter Ascending, the tower is featured prominently as the place where Caine and Jupiter await a spaceship to lift them off the planet.
In the 2018 film Rampage, the Energyne corporation is headquartered in the building and uses the tower's antenna to broadcast an echolocation signal that would attract three mutated monsters. After the antenna is destroyed, the entire building collapses to the ground due to being heavily damaged by a giant mutated ape.
In the 2019 film Captive State, which takes place a decade after an extraterrestrial race has taken over the Earth in an alien invasion, the aliens in Chicago have replaced the tower's antennas with their own jamming device to shut down all digital communication worldwide. The modified tower was also featured on one of the film's posters.
In the 1987 VHS video game Captain Power set in 2147, you can fly around the tower which is at that time called "The Tower of the Seer".
Willis Tower as seen from John Hancock Center observation deck
View down to South Wacker Drive from the Skydeck
View of Willis Tower from John Hancock Center
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Willis Tower.|
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