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The Forgotten History Of Chicago Supertalls: 5 Things You Didn't Know About John Hancock Center

Chicago Mixed-Use

Today's modern skyscrapers owe an immense debt to the John Hancock Center.

John Hancock Center, Chicago

Chicago's third-tallest building ushered in the modern age of supertalls with its iconic design and the revolutionary structural engineering used to build it. When it was topped out on May 6, 1968, it was the second-tallest building in the world and the tallest outside New York City. Today we share five overlooked facts about the John Hancock Center.

1. It Was The World's First Mixed-Use Tower


The original plans for the site called for a 45-story office tower and a  separate, 70-story apartment building. But there were a few issues with those plans. Tenants of the lower-level apartments would have had to deal with the din of Michigan Avenue. The taller apartment building would have blocked the available daylight to the office building, and there were privacy concerns between the two buildings. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Bruce Graham eventually hit upon a tapered design where the residential component would be built atop the offices. The offices are on the 13th through 41st floors, with 700 condos on floors 44 through 92. The tallest condos in the Hancock Center are the third-highest in the world, behind Dubai's Burj Khalifa and Trump International Hotel and Tower, a few blocks south.

2. The Tressed Tube Design Was Ahead Of Its Time


To make this design happen, Graham and engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan (who would later work together on Willis Tower) collaborated on a framed, exterior diagonal tube system that allowed for wider column spacings, uniform distribution of gravity loads and maximum protection in the areas where wind stresses are at their greatest. The X-bracings are clearly visible to the eye and run 20 stories in each section.

This "tressed tube" design proved to be revolutionary and led to a new era in structural engineering. The Hancock Center's total steel usage was equal to that of a conventional 50-story tower. Khan's engineering remains the foundation for modern skyscraper construction.

3. The Residential Amenities Are All-Encompassing


The Hancock Center's 44th floor is dedicated to residential amenities. There's a private grocery store run by the Potash Brothers chain, party rooms, professional kitchens, communal lounges (great for tenants who don't have clear views of Navy Pier thanks to the diagonal beams), a fitness center, a dry cleaner, a library, its own post office and Fed Ex office, and the highest indoor pool in the country (shown). The Hancock Center also has its own election precinct; residents don't have to leave the building to cast a vote.

4. That Time The Fire Department Almost Killed A Man Climbing The Building

Last year, a fire on the 50th floor injured five people and drew attention to the lack of fire sprinklers on the residential floors. (They weren't required to be installed during initial construction.) But even before that incident, Dan Goodwin drew attention to the fire safety procedures of supertalls, by climbing them. Goodwin climbed Willis (then Sears) Tower in May 1981 using suction cups and sky hooks while wearing a Spider-Man suit, earning the nickname "Spider Dan." Goodwin followed that with a climb of the Hancock Center on Nov. 11, 1981. Using a self-designed device that hooked to the building's beams, Goodwin had his climb blocked temporarily by firefighters who attempted to knock him off the building with grappling hooks and high-pressure fire hoses, under orders from Fire Commissioner William Blair. Eventually, Mayor Jane Byrne intervened and Goodwin was allowed to complete his climb; he was arrested once he reached the roof.

5. The Elevators Are The Fastest In The Country

The 360 Tilt observatory at John Hancock Center.

The Hancock Center's 94th floor observation deck (pictured) and the popular Signature Room on the 95th floor give guests 360-degree views of four states, with a visibility range of 80 miles on a clear day. And it doesn't take long to enjoy those views. The Hancock's elevators are among the fastest in the world and the swiftest in the US, traveling at a speed of 20.5 mph. At top speed, they can travel from ground level to the observatory in 39 seconds. Of course, you could take the stairs—all 1,632 of them.