Route 66 sights:  living on the (l)edge at the Sears Tower, or Big Willie’s glass-box insanity

Ever have one of those moments when something supposedly brave suddenly felt really crazy-stupid instead?  Yeah, one of those almost-soiled-your-pants moments.  Joe had one of those a few weeks ago when he thought he’d cure his cabin fever with a little trip to the Sears Tower … to see The Ledge.

The Sears Tower, aka Big Willie  (Photo copyright 2014 by J.D. Kubal; all right reserved)

The Sears Tower, aka Big Willie  (Photo copyright 2014 by Joseph    D. Kubal.  All rights reserved.)

[You’ll notice we don’t call it the Willis Tower.  Hah.  We call it by its given name when it was built, as all true landmarks should be known.  Really:  some carpetbagging overseas tenant takes over the building, and they want recognition just for that?  Ego, much??  However, given that we have another tradition here in Chicago of nicknaming certain very tall architectural treasures – as in:  the John Hancock Building is Big John, and the Standard Oil Building is Big Stan (aka the Amoco Building, aka the Aon Center) – Joe pointed out that we could call this one Big Willie.  In honor of (as I interpreted it) the narcissistic d***s who just had to rename it.  That works for me!  But I digress.]

For the uninformed, The Ledge is a big box of clear, hardened, allegedly guaranteed-to-hold-your-weight glass that sticks out of the side of the building at the level of the 103rd floor.  As if it weren’t scary enough to stand next to those big floor-to-ceiling glass windows and feel that particular paranoia-laced flavor of vertigo (the one where you worry about getting too close to the glass lest someone push you through it and you splat down on the street, screaming all the way), The Ledge was created specifically so that people could step out onto it and look straight down.  Oh, f%*#!@$!

You ask me, that’s an exercise in crazymaking for the truly insane – and I say that as someone who’s climbed the Teton crest trail at about 14,000 feet on a skinny little path with a sheer drop-off on one side at some points, without climbing equipment and only a hiking stick to steady me while I bore a 45-pound backpack.  I felt much steadier up there, relying on my own skills, than I would on the Sky Deck.  You could never get me onto that Ledge … but as someone once said of P.T. Barnum’s dubious entertainments, there’s a sucker born every minute.  And they charge money for this.

We’ll let Joe tell you the rest of the story.  Take it away, dude …

Cabin fever struck me hard about middle-late February.  It’s been a long, cold, snowy winter this year, even for Chicago.  Polar vortex and all that (meaning: a real Chicago winter like we haven’t had in 30 or 40 years; shades of my childhood in the city!).  Living in a far-western suburb now, I’ve had too much snow to shovel this season.  I had to get out.

So, one bright, sunny but frigid morning, I set out for the so-called Willis Tower (being a born and bred, die-hard native Chicagoan, I will call it the Sears Tower throughout the rest of this post).  The tower sits in downtown Chicago astride Route 66 between Jackson Boulevard and Adams Street, just a block east of the Chicago River near the western edge of the Loop.

Though it hasn’t been the tallest building in the world for some years now, the Sears Tower still ranks pretty high at number 9 as of 2013.  It stands at 1,450 feet with its 110 stories.  At the top of the twin antennae, it is a whopping 1,730 feet.  The building was designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and was constructed between 1970 and 1973.  And ironically enough, it was the new and inventive engineering algorithms that SOM’s Fazlur Khan developed for the Hancock Building that made the Sears Tower – and all other super-tall skyscrapers that followed – possible (Khan also worked on the Sears Tower; surprise, surprise).

On this particular frigid morning, there was nobody in line for the Sky Deck, so I decided to watch the nine-minute introductory film Reaching for the Sky that’s supposed to prepare visitors for what’s ahead.  This wasn’t my first trip to the top, but it was still exciting; I grew just a little anxious at the prospect of stepping out onto The Ledge.  For $19, I was slated to ascend 103 stories (1,353 feet) for magnificent views of our Toddlin’ Town, and I had my camera ready.  [Editor’s note:  the phrase toddlin’ town is a slang reference to the amount of hard drinking Chicagoans used to do during Prohibition – which, BTW, is not an activity we’d recommend before going to visit either the Sky Deck or The Ledge.  Just saying.]

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I ascended the building at 1,600 feet per minute in one of the fastest elevators in the world.  While going up, the usual jokes about taking the stairs were bandied about.  That day, we had to switch elevators part way up to reach the 103rd floor, prolonging the anticipation (or the anxiety, if you prefer).  When the doors finally parted, I was greeted with a majestic view of the city sprawling at my feet from horizon to horizon.  You could see a good chunk of Illinois and into Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  By some estimates, on a clear day you can see upwards of 50 miles of terrain.  I certainly saw enough.

I looked around at my birth city with a little pride.  Familiar Chicago landmarks poked up from the cityscape.  On the north side were the John Hancock Building and Water Tower Place.  Further south by the river was the recently erected Trump Tower, sticking out just a little too prominently among its much shorter neighbors (editor’s note: very phallic, Donald – it’s only three times taller than it should be; you compensating?).  And there to the east, the Daley Center, the First National Bank of Chicago building, Big Stan, Millennium Park and that brilliant blue Lake Michigan, with the lakefront museum campus jutting out into the icy waters.  What a beautiful sight.

Okay, I’d delayed enough.

Apprehension, trepidation, consternation all arose in me as I approached one of the transparent boxes hanging over the structure’s edge.  The Ledge actually consists of four units that extend out four feet from the building.  They’re made of several layers of half-inch thick glass melded together into a single, solid transparent cube each; but at that moment, none of them looked all that solid to me.  Looking down, my agoraphobia momentarily got the better of me.

Sky Deck Photos - Photogenic, Inc., Copyright 2014 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Creative Commons License
Sky Deck Photos — Photogenic, Inc.; copyright 2014.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Cautiously but comically, I put out one foot to test the stability of the glass floor.  It took me a minute or two to overcome the vertigo and step into what looked like a man-sized greenhouse window perched high above the city.  The experience was definitely unnerving.  But I did briefly conquer my fear and stood there goofy for a few seconds while a professional event photographer snapped my picture (see photo).  Like I said, temporarily:  a minute was more than long enough, and I was relieved to once again feel solid (and opaque) flooring beneath me.  You’ll notice in the photo that I wasn’t exactly a happy camper just then and looked sort of like a poleaxed walleye pike.  Maybe next time I visit, I’ll be more relaxed.  Or not.  But I doubt I’ll need to try The Ledge again.

The Ledge was designed by the original architects, meaning SOM, and by now has been around for a few years.  Route 66 aficionados may or may not want to try it, but at least the Sky Deck shouldn’t be missed.  In fact, this see-through architectural precipice should give you some life-long memories … but bring along a change of underwear, just in case.

Until next time,
Joe (and Marie)


4 thoughts on “Route 66 sights:  living on the (l)edge at the Sears Tower, or Big Willie’s glass-box insanity

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