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Five Decades of The Willis Tower


Chicago’s Willis Tower is up for sale again, with reports of Blackstone in talks to buy it for a record-breaking $1.5B. Before everyone decides to hate its new name (should it be renamed again), let’s examine the building’s history, starting with its roots as The Sears Tower.

1. 1973

Name: First built for Sears Roebuck, it was simply called The Sears Tower.

Owner: Sears, which purchased three acres on which to build the tower in 1969.

Notable tenants: Sears, law firms Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and Hill & Simpson.

Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed the building and was also responsible for Chicago’s John Hancock tower.

Fun fact: Back in the day, a skyscraper ran cheap: The Sears Tower cost approximately $175M to build. Ground was broken in 1970, and Sears moved in by 1974.

2. 1980s

Name: The Sears Tower

Owner: Sears

Notable tenants: Sears mostly pieced out in 1988 and the building stood rather empty. Law firm Keck, Mahin & Cate became a major tenant.

Major renovations: 1982 saw renovations of public areas and new antenna sections pushed up the tower’s height to 1,730 feet.

Fun fact: It ain’t the Windy City for Nothing: The Chicago Tribune reported in 1988 that high winds caused windows to buckle and crack, much to the consternation of those lawyer tenants.

3. 1990s

Name: Still The Sears Tower, despite Sears saying “au revoir.”

Owners: In 1994, Sears sold the building to Boston-based Aldrich, Eastman Waltch Capital Management with financing from MetLife, and was completely out by 1995. Then in 1997, Toronto-based CN Tower owner TrizecHahn Corp purchased the tower for $110M, assuming $4M in liabilities and $734M in mortgage debt.

Major renovations: The touristy Skydeck pavilion was created in 1990, and lobbies and public spaces also received a facelift.

Fun fact: In 1992, designer Greg Lynn conceived of the “Stranded Sears Tower for a local competition inviting participants to relocate and redesign Chicago landmark buildings.

4. 2000s

Name: “Big Willie” aka The Willis Tower. We were at the naming ceremony, and the name change came about thanks to Willis’ consolidation of its five Chicago-area offices into the space.

Owners: Sold in 2004 to a collective composed of Joseph Chetrit and Joseph Moinian and American Landmark Properties for the then record price of $841M. In 2007, US Equities Realty took over as the building’s exclusive leasing and marketing company.

Major renovations: On the 103rd floor, the Skydeck got a facelift and The Ledge—not for the faint-hearted—was created.

Fun fact: Original Sears Tower architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed The Ledge, and it retracts back into the building to allow for cleaning. 

5. To The Present

Name: It’s still the Willis Tower for now, but we feel an identity crisis coming on...

Owners: In 2010, insurance brokerage the Willis Group consolidated its five Chicago-area offices into the space. Now, it seems that Blackstone's going to snap up the structure, from Joseph Chetrit and Joseph Moinian and Co. Reports say that the building will go for a record-setting $1.5B.

Major renovations: In 2009, The Willis Tower underwent a major greening initiative costing $350M, which included the addition of wind turbines, and LEED certification, plus reducing the building’s base electrical cost by 80%. Work was done by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture.

Fun fact: More evidence of American’s obesity problem (or maybe it’s global?): The Ledge reportedly cracked under the weight of all those who want to gaze down on Chicago’s greatness in 2014.