An iconic presence in a city of architectural icons, the John Hancock Center rises boldly from the mid-American prairie to cast a cultural shadow much larger than the one it gets from the sun.
It is a staple of movies, television newscasts, t-shirts, corporate logos and children's drawings. The John Hancock Center is photographed, idealized, and simplified into its various components and used for all things Chicago. It is visible everywhere, both visually, and in branding for all sorts of products and companies in the city and suburbs. But once you get beyond a 50-mile radius, the Hancock's identity begins to fade and become confused with its taller, younger, possibly even better-looking sibling, the Sears Tower.
It's not surprising that the majority of Americans confuse the Hancock Center and the Sears Tower. Both were erected at roughly the same time. Both are black monoliths. And both are located in hard core fly-over territory. In fact, many tourists are surprised to learn that Chicago has not one, but four supertowers with a fifth under construction. When it comes to scraping the sky, New York and Los Angeles simply can't compete with Chicago.
In its simplest form, the John Hancock Center is four vertical beams connected by a series of cross braces forming a square tube. It's perfectly comprehensible to even the most casual observer and the reason you can sometimes see it scrawled on sidewalks in childrens' chalk doodles. A simple rectangle filled with X's topped by two sticks representing the building's antennae is an almost universal symbol of Chicago for millions of people.
More importantly, the steel exoskeleton made construction cheaper. According to the AIA Guide to Chicago, the 100-story John Hancock Center was erected for about what it cost to build a contemporary 45-story office building.
The John Hancock Center doesn't fuss with setbacks like other tall structures. Its broad shoulders carry its massive girth all the way to the top. But that's not to say it's a box. The tower tapers as it gets higher, an unnecessary use of forced perspective in a skyscraper that is already one of the biggest in the world. The effect is that the glass and steel obelisk appears even taller than it really is.
The construction of the Hancock Center was a game-changer for Chicago's North Side. Before 1969, North Michigan Avenue was lined with fairly uniform and elegant mid- and low-rise buildings that some compared to the look and feel of Paris. When the John Hancock Center came online, it ushered in a wave of skyscraper building along the Magnificent Mile that transformed it into a modern canyon of commerce.
There was originally supposed to be two skyscrapers here, which is why it is called John Hancock Center, not the John Hancock Building. The second tower would gave been East of the first, but the developers could not wrest the land at 195 East Delaware Place away from the very private Casino Club. The developers sent a letter about the second tower to then-club president Doris Winterbotham. She ignored the letter and the development went forward with only one tower. The letter in question was found in Winterbotham's papers after she died, and was later publicized by the Chicago Tribune.
Stairs from the lobby to the observation deck: 1,632
Light tubes on the 99th floor: 555
Time to change crown light tubes: 40-50 hours to change the tinted sleeves over the tubes by hand
Parking spaces: 750
Office floor space: 897,000 square feet
Retail floor space: 171,800 square feet
Observation deck floor space: 17,400 square feet
Commercial address: 875 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60611
Residential address: 175 East Delaware Place, Chicago, Illinois 60611
1965: Plans for the John Hancock Center are announced.
1969: Construction is completed.
1972: The Hancock Center is surpassed by the Standard Oil Building (now the Aon Center) as the tallest building in Chicago.
1973: The residential portion of this building converts from apartments to condominiums.
June, 1988: A proposal was floated to build a massive $20 million, three-story atrium in front of this building. Designed by Green Hiltscher Shapiro, it would have extended all the way to the North Michigan Avenue sidewalk and had colonnades on the north and south sides of the building.
November 11, 1981: Stuntman Dan Goodwin climbs the outside of the building. It takes him six hours to get to the top.
1989: The mall plan is scuttled by residents and critics.
May, 1997: The 94th floor observatory reopens after a $2.5 million renovation.
December 18, 1997: Comedian Chris Farley dies in his home on the 60th floor.
March 9, 2002: Three women were killed when a scaffold broke apart in high winds and rained debris on the street below, crushing two cars.
August 10, 2006: WLS Television reports the John Hancock Center could be sold.
2007: This building was sold for $383 million.
September 2010: A new attraction was announced for the 94th floor observatory: 50x20-foot skating rink, made of a synthetic substance called "Skating in the Sky."
September, 2010: This building was named #1 on Chicago Magazine's list of the Top 40 Buildings in Chicago.
June, 2013: The office portion of this building and its parking garage were sold. Crain's Chicago Business estimated the sale price was $145 million.
This was formerly the location of a surface parking lot.
At the time of its completion, this was the tallest building in Chicago, surpassing the Daley Center.
There is a public observation deck on the 94th floor. It is 1,000 feet above Michigan Avenue.
The restaurant on the 95th floor of this building was formerly called The 95th. It is now The Signature Room.
One section of the observation deck is open to the outside, but is still screened in.
The Hancock Center has 2,800,000 square feet of space.
47 floors of the Hancock Center are residential. It is like a city unto itself, and people do not have to leave the building. The people who live there have their own post office, supermarket, day care center, shops, full-sized swimming pool, library, gym, and other amenities.
Because the building is tapered, homes on different levels have different amounts of space even if they have the same floorplan.
The most coveted views are to the North, overlooking Lincoln Park, and where there is less noise from the city.
The second-most popular view is to the West over the suburbs and spectacular sunsets, followed by the South view of the city.
East views are least popular, especially on higher floors, because the blue lake melds with the blue sky and there's not much to see other than blue.
Some Southern views are problematic because they overlook the roof of Water Tower Place. Residents complain that it's like having a parking lot outside their windows.
At the time it was completed, this building had 720 apartments. That number has been reduced as various units were combined to make larger homes.
*The residential portion of the building has three elevator banks. One for freight, one for passengers, and one for emergency evacuations.
This building and others surrounding it were erected at the location of the first City of Chicago cemetery. While all of the graves were supposed to have been moved to the former cemetery in what is now Lincoln Park construction in the area still turns up the occasional body.
Before the 2009 switchover to digital television the Hancock Center's two masts carried the transmitting antennae for ten TV stations and five backup TV transmitters.
The Eastern mast is the taller of the two. It is 1,503 feet and three inches from the ground to the tip.
For decades the Signature Room, the restaurant at the top of the Hancock, would keep its wine in a wine cellar -- literally. Even though the restaurant is on the 94th floor, wine was kept in the basement and brought up as needed. All of the wine was moved upstairs around 2000.
The studios of WLUP Radio are in this building.
The studios of WUSN Radio are in this building.
The Hancock elevators are billed as the fastest in America, climbing 95 stories in 40 seconds.
Famed architect Mies van der Rohe once designed a skyscraper for this plot, but it was never built and today's John Hancock Center took its place.
The women's bathrooms at the 96th floor bar are routinely named the best in the city, in no small part because of the view.
Talk show host Jerry Springer rented a condominium on the 91st floor of this building when his show was filed in Chicago. It moved to Connecticut in 2009.
The restaurant on the 95th floor of this building is where President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle had their first date.
A 20-foot-tall star used to be suspended between the building's antennae during the Christmas season.
The exterior of the building's 98th floor is lined with 500 eight-foot-tall light panels. Colored tubes are put over them by hand to change the colors.
On the Wrong Side of the Glass A look outside through a hole where glass should be in the side of the John Hancock Center
On a clear day it is possible to see Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
The garden plaza in front of the John Hancock Center once had a public ice skating rink.
Though not visible from the outside, many of the residences in this building have screened-in balconies known as "sky terraces."
Comedian and actor Chris Farley died in this building. He lived in 6002 (60th floor).
The residential portion of the building is its own election district. People who live here can vote without going below the 44th floor.
There is a time capsule at the top of the building. Among the items inside is a piece of Paris' Eiffel Tower.
This building was used in a 1993 Super Bowl commercial for McDonald's.
This was one of the filming locations for the 2005 movie Stranger Than Fiction.
In the August 10, 2010 edition of the Chicago Tribune, WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling wrote that the John Hancock Center is so tall that the air at the top is six degrees cooler than the air at the sidewalk level.
Both the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Center have observation decks. The John Hancock Center has the better view, so if time or money are precious you can skip the Sears Tower.
Long lines form for the observation deck in the warmer months, so it is worth your while to buy and print tickets in advance on the internet so you can jump to the head of the line.
You must go down to go up. The entrance to the observatory is below ground. There are plenty of signs directing people down to the entrance, but some people find it hard to believe that they would need to descend stairs when their goal is 1,000 feet above their heads.
The building's signature cross braces, each 18 stories tall.
When this project was proposed there was fierce opposition because it would increase traffic in the area.
Critics panned the design as reminiscent of an oil derrick.
"It is, without a doubt, the best super-tall tower in town."
-Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1996
"The Hancock... looks mighty great from afar, and mighty dorky from the main entrance... Up close, the Hancock is all warts. The south lobby... looks like a Prague train station... The Grand Avenue subway is about as nice and it has gum machines... The north lobby, where people go to live in this thing, is as jolly as a marble-clad boxcar on a siding in Kansas City."
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