Friday, March 13, 2009

Will “Willis Tower” name take among the locals? Or will it always be Sears?

The left (south) side of this equation gets a new name. How will it be accepted by the locals? Photograph provided by State of Illinois.

My memory of the Sears Tower goes back to the 1973 date that the structure – once the World’s Tallest Building in the same way that O’Hare International was once the World’s Busiest Airport – was dedicated.

My father has spent his lifetime in construction (behind a drafting board, to be exact) with companies that erect those massive structures that help define a city’s character. Back in the early 1970s, he worked for a company that had a piece of the Sears Tower project.

SO WHEN THE structure was dedicated with all the pomp and circumstance that usually accompanies the opening of new publicly visible buildings, my father was on hand. And in an attempt to share the moment (which was part of his professional glory), he brought me along.

I was only 7 at the time, but I remember two images. One was the sight of a building that seemed to go on and on forever into the sky. The other was the sight of Hizzoner himself, Mayor Daley (the real one with the “J.” in his name, not the current one with the “M.”) was present for the event. It was the one time in my life I physically saw the man.

Even though during my lifetime I have twice been to the top of the Sears Tower to look down upon Chicago and the surrounding Midwestern U.S., they are not my lingering memories of the structure in the way that many a tourist feels the need to get off of one of those trolley-like buses and take the elevator up 110 stories – being amazed at how much their ears pop on the ride up.

To me, being able to look up at a new structure that seemed endless (I remember it being an overcast day, so the top of the building literally could have been in the clouds) was much more impressive than riding the elevator to the top to look down – and make jokes about how everybody on the ground looks like a batch of ants scampering around the Chicago cityscape.

IN SHORT, THE Sears Tower has become a part of the Chicago character during its just over a third-of-a century of existence in the South Loop.

Yet, a part of that character is going to change.

Willis Group Holdings, a London-based company, said Thursday it will consolidate five Chicago-area offices into one, and move them into 140,000 square feet of space in the Sears Tower.

Because they will now be such a dominant presence in the office building, the structure will be rededicated as the Willis Tower.

PERHAPS IT IS a sign of how bad the real estate market is for those people who own office buildings, but Willis officials say they didn’t have to pay anything extra to get the name change – beyond the $14.50 per square foot they will pay in rent.

So now we Chicagoans are going to have to get used to a new name. On top of all else, it will be an English name, not a Chicago one like Sears, Roebuck & Co. – which is thought of as a classic Chicago-based company, even though they left the city (and the tower) more than a decade ago for the northwest suburbs.

Will this turn into a case like Marshall Field’s downtown department store, which some people absolutely refuse to think of by its current identity as the State Street outlet for Macy’s?

Will this turn out to be like U.S. Cellular Field, which some stubborn White Sox fans absolutely refuse to think of as anything other than its previous identity as New Comiskey Park?

AS FAR AS I’m concerned, “Willis Tower” is going to take some getting used to, particularly because of its potential for half-wit jokes.

How many people will claim the structure was named for actor Bruce Willis, or that the Hancock Center should get The Arnold Co. (which manufactures railcar door openers) as a namesake tenant. Fans of the old “Diff’rent Strokes” television show could then say Chicago has Willis Tower and the Arnold Center.

It was probably Chicago stubbornness that caused the “Sears Tower” name to remain as long as it did. After all, Sears moved much of its corporate presence from the building years ago.

It really shouldn’t be called “Sears Tower” any longer, except for the fact that so many of us Chicagoans are so used to that name that it will continue to linger for years to come – or at least until my generation finally dies off in three or four decades.

IF ANYTHING, IT is that visibility that has hurt the structure in terms of gaining new tenants. Crain’s Chicago Business, in their report on the name change, noted that Willis is the largest company to move into the structure since the 2001 attacks that took down New York’s World Trade Center.

Too many people seem to think that if something similar were to occur in Chicago, the Sears Tower (make that the Willis Tower) would be the natural target.

So now, one of Chicago’s iconic images needs to be updated, since there are countless programs that make mention of the structure whenever they wish to refer to the Second City.

I remember one of those scientific documentaries that attempted to explain what would become of the planet and man-made structures, once humankind ceases to exist.

THEY LITERALLY USED computer graphics to illustrate how, after about 500 years or so of non-maintenance, the Sears Tower would come crashing down to the ground, taking out whatever remains were left of downtown Chicago.

That was a truly depressing sight to behold.


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