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Sunday, March 3

Gapers Block

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Last week I talked about the city's most well-known public sculptures, the Chicago Picasso. This week I am sharing some facts and trivia about another Chicago landmark, the John Hancock Center.

The John Hancock Center, located at 875 N. Michigan Ave., is the third tallest skyscraper in Chicago, behind the Sears Tower and the Aon Center, and, according to at least one list, ranks as the 16th tallest building in the world. It stands at 1,127 feet tall with 100 stories and 2.8 million square feet of space. Along with the Sears Tower, the Hancock Center is one of the most recognizable figures in Chicago's skyline.

The skyscraper was built in 1969 and, like the Richard J. Daley Center discussed last week, was designed by the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architectural firm. Construction for the Hancock Center was financed by the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, which gave the building its name. The company, of course, is itself named for the statesman and founding father who is best remembered for his flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence -- a signature which also acts as the logo for the insurance company.

One of the most distinctive features of the building is the cross-bracing that creates the series of stacked "X" shapes on the building's exterior. Yet even with the bracing the top of the Hancock Center can reportedly sway as much as 15 inches in strong winds.

As a multi-purpose building, the first few floors of the John Hancock Center, plus the lower level concourses, contain retail space while floors 4-12 provide parking for the building. Offices occupy floors 13 through 41, and the remaining floors up to 92 contain some of the most exclusive residential spaces in the city.

The building is topped by the Hancock Observatory [] on the 94th floor, from which visitors can see as far as Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin on clear days. The elevators that serve the observatory are among the fastest in the world, traveling 1,800 feet a minute and making the trip to the 94th floor in about 39 seconds. Above the observatory on the 95 and 96th floors sits the lavish and expensive Signature Room restaurant (official motto: "The Restaurant Chicago Looks Up To") which also offers dazzling views of the city. But, for those of us who cannot afford the sticker price, you can take a virtual tour of the Signature Room at their website.

Because I just love trivia, I will also note that the John Hancock Center has figured in many pop culture events -- some as marked by their tragedy as they are by their notoriety.

On November 11, 1981, Las Vegas stuntman Dan Goodwin, wearing a Spider-Man costume, scaled the Hancock building in just six hours using suction cups. The stunt almost turned to tragedy when the Chicago Fire Department, in a misguided attempt to stop Goodwin, sprayed him with their fire hoses. Goodwin had scaled the Sears Tower just six months before.

In 1988, the film "Risky Business" with Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay featured the couple having drinks on the 95th floor of the Hancock during the final scene.

"Poltergeist III" was also released in 1988. The Carol Anne character is sent to live with her aunt and uncle who live in the Hancock Center apartments. Although the sequel was a critical and box-office bomb, it is remembered for the fact that actress Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne in all three "Poltergeist" movies, died during filming due to complications from an undiagnosed congenital condition that causes blockage of the intestines. She was only 12 years old.

Finally, on December 17, 1997, the Hancock Center was in the news again when comedian Chris Farley was found dead in his apartment on the 60th floor of the skyscraper as the result of a drug overdose. He was 33.


Bernstein, Arnie. Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998.

Heise, Kenan and Mark Frazel. Hands on Chicago. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1987.

Sinkevitch, Alice, ed. AIA Guide to Chicago. 2nd ed. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004.

Wolfe, Gerard R. Chicago In and Around the Loop: Walking Tours of Architecture and History. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Chicago Authors: First Lines

"Big Pink and Little Minkie get on the number 147 bus every morning at Foster and Sheridan. Two elegant ladies, I'm guessing of Russian descent, in their late seventies, early eighties. Again, I'm guessing. They take the 10:25 A.M. bus downtown, the one I take when I'm late to work - which, these days, is pretty much every day - and then, back home, the 5:06 P.M. When they get on the bus in the evening, they are laden with bags from the most exclusive shops, but, unlike other women on the bus who reuse such bags, converting them to pseudo-suitcases in which they carry gym clothes, leftover takeout, and stolen office supplies, Big Pink and Little Minkie's bags are filled with expensive well-chosen items purchased that day at the shops their bags say they came from. Their favorite store is Chanel. They go there at least once a week."
--Phyllis Moore, from "Big Pink and Little Minkie" in A Compendium of Skirts

Phyllis Moore currently teaches in the MFA Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and her stories have appeared in numerous literary journals. The excerpt above is from her short story collection, A Compendium of Skirts, published in 2002.

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AL / May 13, 2004 9:53 AM

You forgot to mention that freak accident back in 2002 (I think?) when scaffolding fell off the building and crushed a nearby car :(

Naz / May 13, 2004 10:28 AM

My office was just across the street when that happened. I remember going out at lunchtime and they had closed off the area. You could see the broken glass and a few things were sort of just hanging off the side of the building. It was the wind I believe...

Ian / May 13, 2004 12:07 PM

When we have friends and family from out of town, we always take them to the bar on 96th floor, instead of the observation deck. The money from the observation deck tickets go towards the drinks. Drink prices generally equal a good bar or hotel downtown and the Hancock styled drink stirrer provides a free souvenir!

dan / May 13, 2004 3:49 PM

I think it's pretty sweet that the Hancock still holds their "Race Up the Hancock" competition each year. They used to have a similar competition at the Standard Oil building, until the late '80s, when a runner went too fast around a turn and through a window to the street below.


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