May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
The Tallest Building
On May 3 the city of Chicago, birthplace of the skyscraper, regained a measure of civic pride when the Sears Tower topped out at 1,454 feet to become the world’s tallest building—104 feet higher than New York City’s World Trade Center. Gordon Metcalf, the then recently retired chairman of Sears, explained, “Being the largest retailer in the world, we thought we should have the largest headquarters in the world.” In fact, though, when Sears first decided to build its new headquarters six years earlier, it had had no intention of breaking any records. Early plans called for a short, squatty building, until executives decided that floors the size of several city blocks would be too hard to rent out. The design got narrower and taller until finally—right around the time the New York Mets were besting the Chicago Cubs for the National League East title—Sears decided to go all out and steal the building-league championship from Chicago’s traditional rival. The design was unveiled in July 1970.
The building consists of nine seventy-five-foot-square steel vertical tubes of varying heights, bound together in a three-by-three grid to provide much-needed stability against Chicago’s famous winds. Its 110 floors, served by 102 elevators, accommodate more than sixteen thousand workers, while seven separate lobbies—three at ground level and four in the sky—handle the crunch when they all arrive at 9:00 A.M. Critics were impressed with the tower’s innovative structural design, extensive use of automation, and flexible interior space. The external appearance was less well received. One writer said it resembled “a driftwood carving made by some giant”; another called it “not unlike staggered stacks of catalogs.”
In planning its $150 million edifice, Sears included rental space that would eventually be absorbed to house an ever-expanding Sears work force: seven thousand in 1973, ten thousand in 1983, thirteen thousand in 1998. Things didn’t work out that way. Over the ensuing years America’s buying habits changed enormously, and until recently Sears’s response was slow and uncertain. With the company’s survival threatened, its huge building on the fringe of Chicago’s Loop district became too much of a financial drain. In the early 1990s Sears moved its headquarters to suburban Hoffman Estates, and while it officially retains title to the eponymous tower for tax purposes, the building is controlled by a Canadian company.
To make matters worse, it isn’t even the world’s tallest anymore. The twin Petronas Towers, opened in 1996 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, stretch 1,483 feet into the sky, and in 2001 a 1,509-foot building is projected to open in Shanghai, China. Chicagoans grumble that Petronas cheated by putting tall ornamental spires on top of its towers. The Sears Tower still has the highest occupied floor, they point out, and will retain that status even after the Shanghai behemoth is built. The International Council on Tall Buildings, located in low-rise Easton, Pennsylvania, refuses to crown a single champion, saying that each building is the leader in its own category. Using yet another definition, the 378-foot television antenna atop New York City’s World Trade Center makes it the world’s tallest office building, salvaging for third-place New York a tenuous pretext to brag—not that it’s ever needed one.