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Tallest Building in Chicago: The 110-Story Willis Tower

The Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, is a magnificent 110-story skyscraper that graces the skyline of Chicago, Illinois. This architectural marvel stands at a height of 1,451 feet (442.3 meters), making it a prominent feature in the Loop community area. The building was designed by the esteemed architect Bruce Graham and the innovative engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). The tower opened its doors in 1973, clinching the title of the world’s tallest building—a prestigious status it maintained for nearly 25 years.

Today, the Willis Tower holds the title of the third-tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and ranks as the 23rd-tallest building in the world. The Skydeck observation deck, located at the top of the tower, is the highest in the United States and attracts over 1.7 million visitors each year, making it one of Chicago’s most popular tourist destinations.

Architectural Design and Structure

The Willis Tower’s architectural design is nothing short of innovative. Graham and Khan envisioned the building as a matrix of nine square “tubes” clustered in a 3×3 formation. This design lends the tower its unique appearance and structural stability. While the building has 108 stories as per standard counting methods, the building’s owners include the main roof and the mechanical penthouse roof in their count, bringing the total to 110 stories.

The building’s facade is a combination of anodized aluminum and black glass, giving it a sleek and modern appearance. The base of the tower houses a retail complex named the Catalog, and the lower half of the building was originally occupied by the retail company Sears until 1994.

Taking a look at the Tallest building in Chicago Sears (Willis) Tower from the southern side of the tower.
Taking a look at the Sears (Willis) Tower from the southern side of the tower.

History and Tenancy

The Willis Tower, Tallest Building in Chicago, has a rich history and has undergone changes in ownership and tenancy over the years. The structure was known as the Sears Tower until 2009 when the Willis Group acquired the naming rights during a lease agreement. Despite this change, many residents still refer to the building by its original name.

As of April 2018, the building’s largest tenant is United Airlines, occupying approximately 20 floors. Other major tenants include Willis Towers Watson, as well as prominent law firms such as Schiff Hardin and Seyfarth ShawMorgan Stanley also became a significant tenant in 2017.

Tallest Building Controversies and Records

The Willis Tower has been at the center of numerous debates regarding the title of the world’s tallest building. When the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur claimed the title in 1998, Chicagoans argued that the Willis Tower’s top floor was higher. This led to the creation of four categories of “tallest building,” with the Willis Tower and Petronas Twin Towers, each holding titles in different categories.

The tower’s pinnacle height stands at 1,729 feet (527 meters), making it the third-tallest freestanding structure in the Americas. However, it has been surpassed in height by newer constructions such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the One World Trade Center in New York City.

Location and Accessibility

The Willis Tower is strategically located at a site bounded by Franklin Street, Jackson Boulevard, Wacker Drive, and Adams Street. This central location makes it easily accessible and a must-visit destination for tourists and architecture enthusiasts alike.

List of Tallest Buildings in Chicago

Below is a comprehensive list of the tallest buildings in Chicago, providing a snapshot of the city’s impressive skyline.

1. Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) (Tallest Building in Chicago)

  • Height: 1,450 ft (442 m)
  • Floors: 110
  • Year Completed: 1973
  • Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

2. Trump International Hotel and Tower

  • Height: 1,389 ft (423 m) to the tip (1,171 ft to the roof)
  • Floors: 98
  • Year Completed: 2009
  • Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

3. St. Regis Chicago (formerly Vista Tower)

  • Height: 1,198 ft (365 m)
  • Floors: 101
  • Year Completed: 2020
  • Architect: Studio Gang Architects

4. Aon Center

  • Height: 1,136 ft (346 m)
  • Floors: 83
  • Year Completed: 1973
  • Architect: Edward Durell Stone & Associates; Perkins and Will

5. 875 North Michigan Avenue (formerly John Hancock Center)

  • Height: 1,127 ft (343.5 m)
  • Floors: 100
  • Year Completed: 1969
  • Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

6. Franklin Center North Tower

  • Height: 1,007 ft (307 m)
  • Floors: 60
  • Year Completed: 1989
  • Architect: Adrian D. Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

7. Two Prudential Plaza

  • Height: 995 ft (303 m)
  • Floors: 64
  • Year Completed: 1990
  • Architect: Stephen T. Wright of Loebl Schlossman & Hackl

8. NEMA Chicago

  • Height: 896 ft (273 m)
  • Floors: 76
  • Year Completed: 2019
  • Architect: Rafael Viñoly Architects

9. Aqua at Lakeshore East

  • Height: 859 ft (262 m)
  • Floors: 82
  • Year Completed: 2009
  • Architect: Studio Gang Architects

10. Chase Tower

  • Height: 850 ft (259 m)
  • Floors: 60
  • Year Completed: 1969
  • Architect: Perkins and Will; C. F. Murphy Associates

This list captures a diverse range of architectural styles and functions, from modern skyscrapers housing offices and luxury residences to iconic landmarks that have defined Chicago’s skyline for decades. Each building tells a unique story and contributes to the city’s reputation as an architectural powerhouse.

What Did We Learn Today?

The Willis Tower remains an iconic structure in Chicago’s skyline, boasting a rich history, innovative architectural design, and a significant impact on the city’s culture and tourism. Whether referred to as the Willis Tower or the Sears Tower, this skyscraper continues to captivate the attention and admiration of people from around the world.

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