Gripe all you want about the name change, but Sears Tower never had the Ledge.

I assume that the majority of humanity sympathizes with my distaste for the proliferation of corporate naming rights and the way this trend has altered tradition in the name of better market branding. Whether it’s a renamed annual event or a rechristened sports venue, I resent having the identities and logos of corporate America shoved in my face simply because the offending companies forked over enough dough to make it so. For example, one used to be able to go to downtown Cleveland and enjoy a game at Jacobs Field or Gund Arena, two facilities with nondescript names that did not overshadow the entities of their famous residents, the Cleveland Indians and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now, however, sports fans must tolerate the dumb moniker Progressive Field and the even worse Quicken Loans Arena.

There is a certain chutzpah to waving a magical monetary wand and renaming cherished landmarks, a crass practice that I pondered on a recent trip with my family to Chicago. Short on time and wanting to make the most of our moment in the Windy City, we decided to ascend Sears Tower. Only there is no Sears Tower, technically speaking. A British insurance broker, Willis Group Holdings, became a major tenant in 2009, long after the folks from Sears had literally left the building. The owners threw in naming rights as part of the deal, and just like that, Sears Tower became Willis Tower. I don’t know what annoys me more, the fact that yet another architectural icon has been renamed by a big insurance company, or the insult that the tallest building in America now bears the name of a foreign corporation. If I have an anti-corporate sentiment, at least it’s patriotic.

Either the good folks at Willis Group Holdings have sensed the hostility of the public toward their nomenclatural takeover, or the building owners have a little more marketing savvy than their wealthy tenants. Although there can be no doubt in the minds of passing pedestrians that the towering edifice is now known as Willis Tower, the famous 103rd floor is advertised simply as Skydeck Chicago. It’s the don’t-ask-don’t-tell of the tourist trade. If you want to go on believing that this building is the legendary Sears Tower, that’s fine. We’ll take your $17 for a ride to the top, and in exchange we’ll keep our use of the word Willis to a minimum.

We arrived at the end of a beautiful Saturday afternoon with the hope that we might observe the sunset and stick around to see the city lights. Our plans were foiled right on the first floor, however. Despite the modest number of tourists milling about the lobby and queuing for the elevators, we were told that we were approximately 90 minutes away from emerging onto the observation deck. It was much like getting in line for the marquee attraction at an amusement park, when friends and family look at one another and ask, “Is it worth it?” We ultimately decided that it was, given that we had just ridden along a dozen or so stops on the “L” after surrendering our vehicle at the CTA Park-and-Ride.

The amusement park atmosphere continued as we rode down to the basement to buy our tickets. Suddenly it became clear why there was such a long wait, as throngs of people snaked along a narrow maze toward the obligatory post-911 metal detector. Once cleared by security, we paid for our admission and walked around the corner to find ourselves at the end of another line, where we awaited entry into a small theater. The film we saw was much more substantial than I thought it would be, a rare production intended for the general public that did not pander to the lowest common denominator. Following that, we were ushered into still another zigzagging line that eventually led to the coveted elevators, but not before we had covered quite a bit of floor space and even passed through, absurdly, an interior revolving door.

Give the owners credit for trying to keep everyone entertained, however. The walls are covered with flashy graphics touting every unique aspect of the building, including the inescapably amusing fact that it stands 313 Oprah Winfreys tall (“And two Oprahs wide!” added our witty friend Michael in response to our remote Facebook post). Banks of monitors and a few giant screens compete for short attention spans. The best touch, though, is inside the elevator, where a flat screen ticks off the floors while showing a succession of notable tall buildings and monuments that riders are surpassing in height.

As it turned out, we reached the Skydeck about an hour after we entered the building, though it was already dark outside. The view from the 103rd floor was the same as it has always been, with one fantastic exception. Billed somewhat pretentiously as the Ledge, four rectangular windowboxes extend just over four feet from the west wall, allowing visitors to stand suspended over Wacker Drive. It was quite crowded the night we visited, which allowed us to observe the varied reactions of fellow tourists. Some strode boldly onto the platform without hesitation, while others eyed the glass floor warily, and a few even screamed as they entered the box. I had to agree with me wife, who noted that the experience was benign because it seemed unreal. You almost have to remind yourself that you really are standing 1,353 feet above the pavement with only a wedge of glass stopping you from embarking on a lethal plunge.

The bottom line is this: it’s worth the trip and the expense to stand on the Ledge. Not only that, it’s good to see an iconic building in a state of revival, having bounced back from the days when half of its office space was vacant. And though it pains me to say it, if the money from major renters like Willis Group Holdings has made the renovations possible, it’s better to see a vibrant Willis Tower than a waning Sears Tower. Besides, we can all agree to spite the Brits and stubbornly call it Sears Tower.

I admit that there exists some irony in the fact that I pine for the original name of Willis Tower, inasmuch as its previous identity was one big advertisement for the corporate giant Sears, Roebuck and Company. Yet I was never bothered by associating our nation’s tallest building with the humdrum anchor store of our local mall. First of all, Sears built the darn thing, and if they wanted to name the structure they paid for and used to centralize their thousands of employees, then more power to them. There is surely validity in that. But the building is so majestic that it transcended the name of its owners, prompting tourists to wonder if the tower and the catalog company were indeed one and the same.

Yes, at one time, the tallest building in the United States was named for and occupied by the same outfit that sold you underwear and lawnmowers at the end of the mall. At least the average American could relate to that. As for Willis Group Holdings, I think it’s going to take some time before they see their brand embraced across the pond.

One thought on “Whatchoo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Willis?!

  1. I too resent how naming rights are given to the highest bidder. Everywhere we turn we see marketing. I can’t think of anything more devoid of meaning, unless it would be advertising.
    Your story reminds me how in 1978 I went to the top of the World Trade Center in New York during a rain storm. We were really outside, not encased in a glass booth for our protection. Same with the Empire State Building. Never the less, great buildings seem to be the hallmark of civilization and always impress. This was a very well written account of your experience, Bob.

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