My stomach attempts a back flip, a visceral reaction to stepping onto a clear glass floor with 1,353 feet of nothingness between me and the street below.
Another step and I begin to get my bearings, feeling brave enough to peer down between my sandals. The yellow taxis on Wacker Drive look like honeybees, the Chicago city buses beetles, and yes, the commuters scurrying to their trains at nearby Union Station might be ants marching to a picnic.
At 110 stories, the Willis Tower is the tallest building in Chicago and its Skydeck observation level on the 103rd floor offers a jaw-dropping view of the city and lakefront. Step onto the Ledge, clear glass retractable boxes protruding 4.3 feet from its west side, and the thrill ratchets up a few notches as the brain frantically processes a flood of signals all screaming “DANGER!”
World’s Tallest Building No More
When it was completed in 1973 by Sears, Roebuck & Co., then the world’s largest retailer, the iconic black skyscraper was named the Sears Tower. From street level to roof, it stands 1,450 feet, but add the communications towers at the top and the pinnacle reaches 1,729. It held the title of tallest in the world until 1998 and it remained the tallest in the United States until One World Trade Center was topped out in New York City in 2013..
Designed by architect Bruce Graham and structural engineer Fazlur Khan of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the then-called Sears Tower was the first building to incorporate Khan’s idea of separate, bundled towers. The skyscraper consists of nine separate buildings clustered on a square footprint and topping out in a series of staggered roofs at the 50th, 66th and 90th floors. On a windy day in this Windy City, occupants on the upper floors can feel the building sway.
One of Chicago’s Biggest Visitor Attractions
Thank goodness, it isn’t windy when I visit the Skydeck. And I’m lucky that there isn’t a crowd gathered at the street entrance prior to opening on this weekday morning. More than a million people a year visit the Skydeck, so the lobby level has exhibits and hands-on amusements to entertain those waiting in often long lines. One gives bird’s-eye views of other Chicago landmarks as seen from the height of the Skydeck. My favorite depicts Wrigley Field. It begins with a close-up camera shot of the pitchers’ mound at the venerable ballpark, then zooms out as the shot widens to the stands, the fence and the neighborhood beyond until coming to a stop 1,353 feet up. It’s so breathtaking, I push the button to activate the exhibit again.
I get a taste of the same sensation in the elevator that zooms me that distance in just 60 seconds. My ears pop. The doors open, I walk to the windows and Chicago spreads out before me.
View Four States from Willis Tower Skydeck
There’s a forest of skyscrapers at my feet and to the north the John Hancock Center with its own observation deck about 1,000 feet above Michigan Avenue. I can make out Wrigley Field a few miles away. Wisconsin lies on the horizon.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- You want the thrill of standing near the top of one of the world’s tallest buildings.
- You appreciate the engineering genius and artistry of architecture.
- Good for families as well as individuals checking off Chicago’s top visitor attractions.
To the east, Lake Michigan spreads out from the lakefront in a field of blue. On clear days, Skydeck visitors can see all the way across to the state of Michigan. I settle for views of Millennium Park and, jutting out on a peninsula, the Adler Planetarium. I move to the south windows and pick out Soldier Field where the Chicago Bears play football, as well as the Field Museum and Museum of Science and Industry. If I narrow my eyes, I can follow the curve of the lake and just make out the smokestacks of Gary, Indiana.
But to the west, there’s the Ledge. I read a sign that tells me these four enclosed glass balconies can hold five tons, and that gives me comfort as I make my first gingerly step. Soon I’m standing fully inside a glass box, watching the Chicago River snake off into the distance and planes taking off and landing at Midway and O’Hare airports.
I look around at my fellow Skydeck visitors. Some can’t quite make the leap onto the Ledge, others are in there doing handstands.
Sears Tower Becomes Willis Tower
Sears, which had consolidated its headquarters in the tower when it opened, began to lose popularity with consumers in the 1980s and was forced to downsize in the tower. At one time, half the building was empty. Sears began moving its offices to the suburbs in the 1990s and sold the tower in 1994.
Ownership changed hands several times before Willis Group Holdings, an insurance broker based in Britain, leased part of it in 2009 and bought the naming rights. When it was officially renamed the Willis Tower, Chicagoans balked, refusing to adopt the new name.
Though it lost bragging rights at the world’s tallest building and lost its name, the tower still has one stellar distinction. The restrooms in the Skydeck are the highest in the Western Hemisphere. When nature calls, it’s a throne in the sky.
Information and tickets: 312-875-9696, 877-SKYDECK, The Skydeck
When to go: Choose a clear day for the best views. Open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. April through September, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. October through March. No admission 30 minutes before closing time.
Getting there: The Willis Tower is in the West Loop section of downtown Chicago at 233 S. Wacker Drive. The Skydeck entrance is around the corner to the south on Jackson Boulevard.