Chicago’s Sears Tower: the history of an American landmark

443 meters high, 110 floors, from its top the gaze can reach four different American states

The entry of new sparkling buildings into the list of the tallest skyscrapers causes it to slip one step lower in the ranking every year. Today, with its 110 floors and 1450 feet (443 meters), it is “only” in 24th place globally and third in the United States. However, the Sears Tower in Chicago, also known as the Willis Tower or affectionately as “Big Willy,” remains popular in America as the queen of towers, attracting over 1.7 million visitors to its summit this year.

A record so far untouched by other futuristic vertical buildings, partly due to its conception as the ultimate observation point. On clear days, from the Skydeck, located at 1,352 feet (412 meters) above the ground, providing the highest view in the United States, you can see four states: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan, thanks to visibility reaching 50 miles (80 kilometers).

Willis Tower: a work popular worldwide

The appeal of popularity for the queen of towers, still the third tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, is not due to its portrayal in epic films, such as “The Dark Knight,” where a catastrophic duel between Batman and the Joker takes place in a Chicago-Gotham City, or as in “Rampage,” where Dwayne Johnson fights to prevent three animals transformed by an unknown chemical substance into monstrous beasts from destroying Chicago, starting with the tower. Instead, Big Willy’s popularity is due to the opportunity to see the city suspended in the void. This uniqueness has been exported to other mega-infrastructures worldwide, especially in Asia.

Every day, the line of tower visitors extends to “The Ledge,” a complex of fully glassed-out protruding balconies extending 4.3 feet, about one and a half meters, from the 103rd floor. These are four glass boxes, each 10 feet (three meters) high and wide, formed with three tempered glass slabs capable of withstanding up to 5 tons. Each balcony has thermal tracking to provide a perfect view of the outside even in snow or ice, and is designed to retract into the building for cleaning or maintenance.

From Sears to the Willis Tower

In total, the tower has about 16,100 bronze-colored windows, cleaned using six rooftop-mounted robot washers. The skyscraper’s elevators still operate at one of the world’s fastest speeds, equivalent to 488 meters (1,600 feet) per minute. The infrastructure contains 25,000 miles (over 40,000 kilometers) of electrical cables, enough to cross the continental United States 15 times.

Inaugurated 50 years ago, in 1973, its construction required the work of two thousand people and three years of effort. It was commissioned by the retail chain Sears, which occupied the ground floor with stores until 1994 when it was transferred to the Willis Group, while retaining naming rights until 2009. The building is still officially the Willis Tower, although ownership was acquired by the Blaskstone Group. Naming rights last for 15 years, making it possible for the tower to change its name for the third time in 2024.

Spiderman's feats on the Tower

The popularity of the Willis Tower has always been so high that over the years, it has attracted climbing attempts, such as the one in 1981 by Dan Goodwin, dressed as Spiderman, who, with the help of suction cups, took seven hours to reach the top, where he was arrested (and later released) for trespassing. Another attempt was made by the Frenchman Alain Robert, also known as Spiderman, who climbed it barehanded and barefoot.

Over time, the Willis Tower has acquired the status of an American landmark, an icon capable of withstanding the test of time and the ups and downs of the tallest building rankings, akin to the Empire State Building in New York, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, or the Kingdom Tower, built by Webuild in 2002 in Riyadh and winner of the 2002 Emporis Skyscraper Award as the “best skyscraper in the world for design.” Now called the Kingdom Center, the skyscraper, with its unique corkscrew shape, will dominate universal attention for the Expo 2030 recently awarded to the capital of Saudi Arabia.