Friday, March 13, 2009

City of Big Distinctions

Years ago I wrote this piece about how we Chicagoans love to boast about our firsts, our biggest, tallest and greatests in the world.

It's all coming to the surface again with the renaming of Sears Tower to Willis Tower. Frankly I'm a little surprised since buildings get renamed all the time without much notice. I didn't hear a peep when the Standard Oil Building became the Amoco and later the AON Building.

Or when the Associates Center (aka the Diamond Building at Michigan and Randolph) became the Stone Container Building and later the Smurfit-Stone Building.


As Cary Grant said to his mother while in a drunken stupor in Hitchcock's masterpiece "North by Northwest", "no mother I didn't believe it either!"

But this Sears Tower name change seems to have really rubbed people the wrong way. Maybe it's because of all the recent changes that have de-Chicagoized some of our most cherished institutions.

Marshall Field's becoming Macy's is the prime example. The Field name of course has been synonymous with Chicago for well over 100 years just as the Macy's name has been with New York. Having a New York institution replace a Chicago institution was more than most Chicagoans could stand, despite the fact that both stores for years had been owned by companies outside of their respective home towns.

The Sears name also has also been synonymous with Chicago ever since Richard Sears moved his one man jewelry business here from Minneapolis in 1887. The rest of course is history, the company quickly became one of the giant mail order retailers in the country to have been based in Chicago. At one time all across America the arrival of the Sears catalog was anticipated with as much gusto as birthdays and Christmas.

But much has changed over the years, the mail order business all but disappeared and while Sears department stores have stuck around, they are certainly not a fixture in American life as they once were. The company left Sears Tower for its new digs in suburban Hoffman Eastates in 1992 leaving only the name.

The building was built in 1973 to be the the tallest building in the world. It kept that distinction until 1998. But sheer height alone does not make a building good and no one has ever accused Sears Tower as being particularly interesting, let alone beautiful.

Given its size it is a rather unremarkable building without style or grace, plunked down on a sizable block site in the west Loop. It doesn't have a graceful profile like the great art deco towers, doesn't have a facade that plays gracefully with light as the AON Building, and it doesn't strike an audacious pose like it's SOM cousin, the John Hancock Building.

Its most objectionable feature in my opinion is the way it meets the street. There is no attempt to unify the monster building with its surroundings. The design of the entrance was so unsuccessful that it was reworked several times. Barriers had to be installed about 10 feet into the ledges on the base because pedestrians not paying attention could find themselves perilously high above the ground as the ledges that start even with the sidewalk on the Wacker Drive side end up about 20 feet above the ground at Franklin Street where the street grade (but not the ledge) has descended from the river.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Sears Tower's icon status in Chicago is based solely on the fact that it was once the world's tallest building. Now that the distinction has been lost, as far as I'm concerned they can call it whatever they like. There are hundreds, no thousands of better buildings in the city.

If you do need to cling to some kind of height distinction though, rest easy for as far as I know, Sears/Willis Tower still has the highest bathrooms in the world.

But here's something that should cause real concern about another Chicago institution. I just learned today that in some Chicago parks, 16 inch softball is is being gradually replaced by 12 inch with gloves.

This is truly disconcerting news.

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