What you talkin' bout, Willis? Sears Tower renamed

July 16, 2009 7:32:31 AM PDT
One of the world's most iconic skyscrapers has long tempted Chicago visitors to squint, crane their necks and try to see the tip of the country's tallest building. But starting Thursday, Sears Tower will be gone. Sort of. Its black, block-like architecture and towering rooftop spikes will remain, but the widely recognized name it carried for three decades will be pushed out by a British company.

Willis Tower will be introduced to Chicago by Mayor Richard M. Daley and others on Thursday during a public renaming ceremony hosted by Willis Group Holdings. The London-based insurance brokerage secured the naming rights as part an agreement to lease 140,000 square feet of space, and has said it plans to bring hundreds of jobs to the city.

But some locals aren't sold.

"It's always going to be the Sears Tower. It's part of Chicago and I won't call it Willis Tower. In Chicago we hold fast," Chicago teacher Marianne Turk, 46, said as she stood in line this week to go up to the building's Skydeck.

The 110-story skyscraper has been known as Sears Tower since it opened in 1973. Its original tenant, Sears Roebuck and Co., moved out in 1992 but its sign stayed. A real estate investment group, American Landmark Properties of Skokie, now owns the 1,450-foot-tall building.

"Everybody knows that tower," Willis Group Holdings chief executive Joe Plumeri said ahead of Thursday's ceremony. "If we're good corporate citizens and do what we should, hopefully Willis and the tower and Chicago will all become synonymous."

Historically, skyscrapers have been businesses unto themselves, acting as a commodity to compete for high rents and tenants, said Carol Willis, founder and director of The Skyscraper Museum in New York.

"Naming rights are an asset of the building. They can be turned into money and that's what the new owners are doing," she said.

Other well known buildings have undergone name changes - New York City's Pan Am Building became the MetLife Building, and Chicago's Standard Oil Building is now the Aon Center - but the public hasn't always taken to them.

The Chicago tower's owners acknowledge it will take time for some people to accept the new name, but they're confident it will happen eventually.

"It is an icon, but I believe over time it will become known as Willis Tower," said John Huston of American Landmark Properties, who represents the building ownership.

Alex Lucas, 29, an Arlington Heights business systems analyst who works down the street from the skyscraper, was so displeased with the name change that he started a Web site, http://www.itsthesearstower.com.

"Chicago is going to lose a big part of what is its identity and I don't know what's going to fill that space," Lucas said.

The new name isn't the only major change this year. Last month, owners announced a $350 million greening effort, complete with wind turbines and solar panels, along with plans for a 50-story luxury hotel. For tourists, glass-bottomed enclosed balconies on the 103rd Skydeck were opened earlier this month, giving visitors a 1,353-foot look straight down.

All these efforts were part of a plan aimed at remarketing the building as a pioneer and reintroducing it to the world, owners say.

Reluctance to let go of the name is understandable, said Plumeri, Willis Group Holdings' CEO. But, he added, "By the same token life moves on, nothing ever stays the same. Chicago is an evolving city."

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On the Net:

Willis Tower: http://www.willistower.com


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