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Point of Interest: The Willis Tower: History, Facts, Views & More

Experience the magnificence of Chicago's Skyline by exploring the fascinating structures that make it up. One of the most notable landmarks is The Willis Tower at 233 S Wacker Drive, which can be viewed from the 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck on the 94th floor of the former John Hancock Center at 875 N Michigan Avenue. In this detailed post, find out about Chicago's Willis Tower's history, innovative design, and features.  

The Stats

  • Willis Tower height: 1,451 feet high with 110 stories
  • Number of Willis Tower floors: The tower's main roof is considered as the 109th floor, with the mechanical penthouse roof considered as the 110th floor.
  • It is the 12th tallest building in the world. 
  • The tower spans over 4.3 million square feet and features a remarkable 16,100 windows. 
  • Its construction took three years and was completed in May 1973. 
  • The building is home to 100 companies, and since April 2018, the largest tenant, United Airlines, occupies around 20 floors.

History of the Willis Tower

The Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, is an interesting amalgamation of architecture and urban progress. It reigned as the tallest building in the world for more than two decades, from 1973 to 1998. Originally built as the headquarters for Sears, Roebuck & Company, it housed its operations until 1994. The tower's strategic location on Franklin Street, Jackson Boulevard, Wacker Drive, and Adams Street provided easy access to expressways and trains for its 350,000 employees. The lower floors of the tower were occupied by Sears, while the upper stories were leased to other businesses.

In 2009, Willis Group Holdings, a London-based insurance broker, secured the naming rights for 15 years and leased three floors comprising over 140,000 square feet of office space in the Sears Tower. Following the deal, the building's name was officially changed to Willis Tower on July 16, 2009. Nevertheless, locals and visitors still refer to the building as the Sears Tower even today.

Construction of the Chicago Willis Tower

The former Sears Tower in Chicago boasts exceptional construction, architecture, and design. It was crafted by renowned architect Bruce Graham and structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan and made history with its innovative bundled tube system. This structure comprised nine square tubes arranged in a 3×3 matrix and redefined skyscraper construction by minimizing the steel required for such great heights. The welded steel frames of the vertical tubes provide mutual support, enabling the building to withstand wind forces and reduce lateral sway. Furthermore, variations in the height of each tube disrupt air currents, reducing stress on the structure. This overall design of the building was inspired by the non-uniform distribution of cigarettes in a pack, created with a facade consisting of anodized aluminum and black glass.

The Willis Tower At Night

When darkness falls upon the city, the dominance and stature of the Willis Tower on the Chicago skyline becomes even more enchanting, especially at night. To get the best view of the Willis Tower from its best vantage point, arrive at the 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck 30-45 minutes before sunset.

At night, as the sparkling lights of the skyline illuminate the building there are also interesting color changes of the antennas, which are programmed to display different color combinations based on what's happening in Chicago. For instance, the antenna colors are set to red and green during Christmas, while pink represents breast cancer awareness month, and blue and orange signify major Bears victories. During Taylor Swift's Eras tour stops in Chicago this summer, the antenna colors changed for each show and were set to red and pink for her final performance.

The Willis Tower Observation Deck - Views

From the top of the Willis Tower, visitors can enjoy an expansive view of Chicago. The Willis Tower Observation Deck is on the 103rd floor and provides views of the city and its surroundings. From this elevated vantage point, one can marvel at the Chicago Skyline, take in views of Lake Michigan extending into the distance, and even catch a glimpse of neighboring states on a clear day.

Willis Tower vs. John Hancock building

Chicago boasts two famous skyscrapers—the Willis Tower and the former John Hancock Building, which is home to the 360 CHICAGO Observation Deck. Each building showcases its own unique architectural features and characteristics that make them prominent in the city's skyline. Interestingly, Fazlur R. Khan, the structural engineer behind the Sears Tower, also contributed to the construction of the John Hancock Building.

The views from these two observation decks differ due to their location within downtown Chicago. For example, the former John Hancock Building is located north of the river, near Michigan Avenue, and south of downtown. The Willis Tower Observation Deck offers views of downtown facing Wacker Drive and the Chicago River, providing a distinct perspective of the city's central area. Discover more about their features and differences in this Willis Tower vs. John Hancock comparison article.

Interesting Willis Tower Chicago Facts

Changing Heights 

  • The former Chicago Sears Tower was originally intended to have a height of 1,800 feet. However, due to financial constraints, it was scaled back to its current height of 1,451 feet. This decision still made it the tallest building in the world at the time of its completion in 1973. 
  • In February 1982, two television antennas were added to the structure, increasing its total height to 1,707 feet. The western antenna was later extended, bringing the overall height to 1,729 feet in order to improve the reception of the local NBC station WMAQ-TV.

Hefty Price Tag

  • The Blackstone Group purchased the tower in March 2015 for a reported $1.3 billion, the highest price ever paid for a property in the U.S. outside of New York City.

Built to Move

  • The average sway of the building is approximately 6 inches from the true center, but the building is designed to sway up to 3 feet.

Uber-Fast Elevators 

  • The Willis Tower's elevators are among the fastest in the world, capable of traveling at speeds of up to 1,600 feet per minute. These elevators can take visitors to the 103rd floor in just under a minute! 

On the Big Screen

The tower has appeared in many films and television shows set in Chicago, including 

  • 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 set up temporary production in Chicago in 2006.
  • It is also featured as part of Gotham City in the 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight, in the 2011 film Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and serves as the headquarters of the Daily Planet in the 2013 Superman film Man of Steel. 

For more information about Chicago’s points of interest that make the city one of the most exciting urban environments in the world, like the Chicago Willis Tower, visit our Chicago tips and articles.

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