Willis Ups the Ante in the Battle of Chicago Observatories

If cats could vote in travel magazine polls, chances are they’d make Chicago the #1 city they’d want to visit.  If you’re a cat owner, you already know why: Cats love to go to high places and look down on everyone else.  And Chicago has no shortage of perfect public perches.

One of those perches has announced plans it hopes will sway people to choose its lofty heights over the competing options.  It’s the Willis Tower (233 South Wacker Drive), where $20 million worth of renovations coming to its 103rd-floor Skydeck Chicago are more outside than inside.

Willis Tower and the John Hancock Center have been in a tit-for-tat battle of one-upsmanship for the last few years, as they fight with ever-more-flashy attractions to suck up dollars from tourists who are going to choose just one observation deck to visit, not two.

But now those tourist dollars are spreading even thinner, with Navy Pier going full observation wheel, the Aon Center testing its views on continually wowed audiences, and every hotel from McCormick Place to the Gold Coast opening bars on their roofs.  Today there are more ways to get high in Chicago than ever before.

This week, the Willis Tower fired the latest volley in the battle of Chicago heights.  Crain’ Chicago Business dug up a Morningstar report stating that Blackstone Group plans to expand the current observatory from one to two floors, taking over the 102nd floor space.  It would then open not one, but two new attractions.  The first is a kind of outdoor ledge.  Think glass floors, and nothing but a nylon harness keeping you from the wild blue yonder.

Rendering of an outdoor staircase and a glass harness ledge at the Willis Tower (via Crain's Chicago Business)

Rendering of an outdoor staircase and a glass harness ledge at the Willis Tower (via Crain’s Chicago Business)

The second is a two-story glass box that will allow people braver than me to rappel a short way down the face of the skyscraper, a thousand or so feet above the street below.  I did a fair amount of rappelling in the Pennsylvania woods during my college R.O.T.C. days, and that was scary enough.  This Willis thing sounds like nine pounds of “nope.”

Both observation deck additions are part of a half-billion dollar renovation that Blackstone announced back in February.  It includes a six-story glass retail complex around the base of the city’s tallest tower, with three levels above ground, and three levels below.  For more on that, see the press release that follows.

Mayor Emanuel Joins Blackstone And Equity Office To Unveil Visionary Modernization Plans For Willis Tower

$500 Million Investment Will Reinforce Willis Tower as a Global Destination with Unprecedented Office Amenities and Unique Retail and Entertainment Experiences

Chicago and New York – Mayor Rahm Emanuel today joined Blackstone (NYSE: BX) and Equity Office, an office portfolio company owned by Blackstone’s real estate funds, to announce visionary plans for Willis Tower in downtown Chicago, an architectural icon and one of the world’s tallest buildings. Through a $500 million investment, Willis Tower will be transformed and reinforced as a civic destination and the premier workplace with unprecedented office amenities, and unique retail and entertainment experiences. The transformation will be the first major renovation in the building’s 43-year history, creating a modernized Willis Tower.

“With this historic investment the Willis Tower will remain a vibrant and modern icon that inspires both young and old for generations to come,” Mayor Emanuel said. “But more than that – today Blackstone is doubling-down on its confidence in the future we are building in the city of Chicago.”

“Willis Tower has always been iconic within Chicago’s skyline and around the world,” said Jon Gray, Global Head of Real Estate, Blackstone. “The investment we announced today is the largest Blackstone has ever made in reimagining one of its properties. Our goal is to restore Willis Tower to its original prominence and make it a must-visit destination in Chicago for tenants, local residents and tourists. This investment sets a bold new standard for office environments and urban centers around the world and underscores our commitment to the development of the city of Chicago.”

As part of the transformation, approximately 460,000 square feet of existing space within the Tower will be reconfigured. This includes 150,000 square feet of space for exclusive tenant use, including a full-service fitness center, expansive tenant lounges, private event space and concierge services to create an inspiring and energetic work environment. The plan also calls for more than 300,000 square feet of new retail, dining and entertainment space to be added to the base of the building, and a new 30,000-square-foot outdoor deck and garden space.

The Willis Tower transformation will offer a new generation of visitors the ultimate combination of sleek design and comfort, and openness and intimacy. The retailers and attractions added to the building will bring together local culinary stars and first-to-market restaurants, introducing exciting new flavors from faraway places, wines from around the world, craft beer from the neighborhoods, and the best local boutiques and global brands.

Part of the investment will also focus on enhancing the Tower’s 103rd floor Skydeck Chicago experience, which currently welcomes 1.7 million national and international visitors annually, to create a world class and one-of-a-kind family entertainment experience. Work to transform the Tower is scheduled to begin this month, and will create an additional 2,500 jobs.

“We are pleased to be in the position to draw on Bruce Graham’s original inspiration for this Tower, and to have the opportunity to harmonize his enduring vision with the changes that have since occurred in the city and its neighborhoods, and in the nature of the way we use urban environments for work, life and play,” said Eli Khouri, President and Chief Executive Officer, Equity Office. “Our goal is to remain true to his vision, by making the Tower the most coveted workplace in the city as well as a compelling public destination, and a source of civic pride for Chicago’s citizens. Against that backdrop, the project provides the perfect platform to showcase Equity Office’s ability to create best-in-class work environments that drive value for successful organizations.”

The Tower’s transformation will include a new three-story transparent, glass structure set atop the existing stone plaza welcoming visitors and offering a ‘see and be seen’ experience that invites people to engage, linger and enjoy the streetscape. Below the glass facade will be three subterranean floors organized around a three-story winter garden crowned with a dramatic glass skylight, which will provide unobstructed views of all 110 floors of the tower rising above.

Designed in the 1960s, Willis Tower, like its contemporaries, was built atop a base to separate the urban streetscape from the building, and to minimize the number of people walking along the sidewalk. The new plans break this barrier, blending the building into the city it calls home and re-energizing the downtown area.

“Once complete, the reimaged Willis Tower will bring a new energy to Chicago’s central business district, creating a lively neighborhood center where people will work, spend time and enjoy the best of the city,” said Paul Kurzawa, Managing Director – Development, Equity Office, who is overseeing the redevelopment. “The new Willis Tower will raise the boundaries of architectural excellence and represent the pinnacle of deeply livable work environments in the city of Chicago as well as urban centers around the world.”

Blackstone and Equity Office’s vision for the new Willis Tower was brought to life by the Chicago office of Gensler, a global San Francisco-based design firm. Gonzalez Architects designed the tenant-only office amenities, and Los Angeles-based Hetzel Design is overseeing the design concepts for the Skydeck enhancements. Design-build firm Turner Clayco will oversee the construction of the new Willis Tower.


To further deepen the relationship between Willis Tower and the city it calls home, at the event, Equity Office announced that it will offer 5,000 Skydeck tickets annually to Chicago Public Schools, so that children from communities across Chicago can experience the Tower’s Observation Deck on the 103rd floor.

Equity Office also announced a $100,000 donation to Project Pipeline, a program sponsored by the Illinois chapter of the National Association of Minority Architects (I-NOMA) that is designed to educate, inspire and mentor minority students as they matriculate through the rigors of becoming a licensed architect. Equity Office’s donation will enable Project Pipeline to double the number students served by their hallmark “architectural summer camp” program, increase scholarship funding for the program and establish an 8 week design-build program for high school age students who will work to rehabilitate a community space in Chicago. More information about the Project Pipeline can be found at: www.i-NOMA.org.


Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Blackstone’s Jon Gray also announced the Blackstone Inclusive Entrepreneurship Challenge, a three-year pilot program that will award up to $3.4 million in grants to innovative organizations that effectively recruit and support diverse entrepreneurs and scale start-ups in the Chicago area. Chicago has been chosen as the first city for this pilot program. The application, criteria and eligibility requirements for the Blackstone Challenge are available at: www.blackstonechallenge.org.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

Share This Post On