Chicago Architecture Info

875 North Michigan Avenue

Photographs

Facts

Formerly The John Hancock Center
Also known as Big John
Address
  • Commercial: 875 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60611
  • Residential: 175 East Delaware Place, Chicago, Illinois 60611
Neighborhood Gold Coast
Built 1965 - 1969
Developer Jerry Wolman
Architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill
Architect Bruce J. Graham
Structural engineer Fazlur R. Khan
Type
  • Infrastructure
  • Observatory
  • Office
  • Residential
  • Retail
Floors 100
Height
  • Height to tower roof: 1,106 feet, six inches
  • Height to penthouse roof: 1,127 feet
  • Height to top of east antenna: 1,506 feet, three inches
Cost $95,000,000
Size at base 47,000 square feet
Size at top 17,000 square feet
Elevators 42
Steel used 46,000 tons
Stairs from the lobby to the observation deck 1,632
Decorative light tubes on the 99th floor 555
Time required to put new sleeves on the light tubes to change their color 45-50 hours
Automobile parking 750 spaces
Floor space
  • Office space at opening: 812,160 square feet
  • Retail space at opening: 237,657 square feet
  • Observation deck: 17,400 square feet (2006)

Notes

  • 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 North Michigan Avenue.
  • The restaurant on the 95th floor of this building was originally called The 95th.
  • 47 floors of the Hancock Center are residential. It is like a city unto itself, and residents do not have to leave the building. The people who live there have their own post office, supermarket, restaurants (with preferred seating for residents), shops, a 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 floor plan.
  • The most coveted views are to the north, overlooking Lincoln Park. The north side of the building also receives 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 the skyscraper next door. 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.
  • 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 cemetery in what is now Lincoln Park (and then moved again when that cemetery closed), construction in the area still turns up the occasional body.
  • Before the 2009 switchover to digital television, this building's two masts carried the primary transmitting antennae for 10 television stations and five backup TV transmitters.
  • The eastern mast is the taller of the two. It is 1,506 feet and three inches from the ground to the tip.
  • For decades the restaurant at the top of the building would keep its wine in a literal wine cellar. 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.
  • When this building opened, its elevators were 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.
  • 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 lived on the 91st floor of this building when his show was filmed in Chicago.
  • Comedian Chris Farley died in his apartment (#6002) on the 60th floor of this building on December 18, 1997.
  • 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 lights. Colored tubes are put over them by hand to change the colors.
  • When this project was proposed, there was fierce opposition because it would increase traffic in the area.
  • Architecture critics panned this building's design as reminiscent of an oil derrick.
  • The building's signature cross braces are each 18 stories tall.
  • On a clear day it is possible to see Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
  • The plaza in front of this building 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.”
  • 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, sports and space memorabilia, and a letter from Mayor Richard J. Daley.
  • This building was announced as The John Hancock Center. Then, the original developer could not afford to finish construction of this building. John Hancock insurance company took over the project and finished construction because it didn't want its name associated with a failed project.
  • Older photographs of this building show much shorter antennae. They were originally 344 feet tall.
  • 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 film National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, this was the location of Mr. Shirley's office.
  • 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.
  • This building once housed a Bonwit Teller luxury department store.
  • At the time of its introduction and construction, this building was widely considered a boondoggle and ridiculed for its design and cost.
  • This building rests on 239 caissons, each up to 10 feet in diameter.
  • 57 of this building's caissons are sunk 200 feet into the ground, almost to the locaL bedrock. The other 182 go down as far as 88 feet.
  • At the time this building opened, its residences were the highest in the world.
  • This building's steel frame weighs 46,000 tons.
  • This building's exterior is coated with black anodized aluminum, and the windows are bronze glass.
  • This building has 11,459 windows.
  • At the time this building opened, it had the world's highest full-sized pool It lost that title in 2017 to a building in China.

Tourist Tips

  • Both the Willis Tower and this building have observation decks. However, this building has the better view. So if time or money are precious you can skip the Willis Tower.
  • Long lines form for the observation deck in the warmer months, so it is worth your while to buy tickets in advance.
  • 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 get lost because they find it hard to believe that they need to descend stairs when their goal is 1,000 feet above their heads.

Quotations

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.
The Chicago Tribune August 28, 1988

Timeline

1965 Plans for this building were announced.
1966 Construction was halted for six months while the building's caissons were inspected for flaws at a cost of $1,000,000. Two of the caissons had developed voids in them. Three others had foreign material in them. All five had to be repaired.
May 6, 1968 This building topped off.
1969 Construction was completed.
1969 Cubs catcher Gene Oliver publicly announced that if his team didn't win the division title that year, he would jump off this building. The team didn't win, but Mr. Oliver didn't jump, either.
1972 This building was surpassed by what was then the Standard Oil Building as the tallest building in Chicago.
1973 The residential portion of this building converted from apartments to condominiums.
June, 1988 A proposal was floated to build a massive $20,000,00, 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. The plan was almost universally panned, including by Mayor Eugene Sawyer who personally wrote a letter to the building's owners protesting.
November 11, 1981 Stuntman Dan Goodwin climbed the outside of the building. It took him six hours to get to the top.
May 1993 The 95th floor restaurant closed.
September, 1993 The 95th floor restaurant reopened under new management and with a new name: The Signature Room at the 95th. The restaurant name is a play on words, as the building was then known as the John Hancock Center, and "John Hancock" is common slang for a person's signature.
1993-1994 The open sunken plaza in front of this building was replaced with a new plaza designed by Hiltscher Shapiro Associates featuring waterfalls and outdoor cafe seating.
1994 170 additional parking spaces were added in this building's fourth and fifth floors, in space formerly occupied by the Bonwit Teller department store.
January 2, 1997 The observatory closed for a renovation designed by Lucien Lagrange and Associates,. It was the first time it closed since the building opened.
May, 1997 The 94th floor observatory reopened after a $2,500,000 renovation.
March 9, 2002 Three women were killed and eight other people hurt when a scaffold broke apart in high winds and rained debris on the street below, crushing two cars.
September, 2010 A new attraction was announced for the 94th floor observatory: 50x20-foot synthetic skating rink.
September, 2010 This building was named #1 on Chicago Magazine's list of the Top 40 Buildings in Chicago.
May, 2014 The Tilt opened inside the 94th-floor observatory. It is a glass-enclosed thrill ride that leans people out over the street 1,000 feet below.
October 27, 2015 A plan was introduced to erect an 800-foot-wide, 39-foot-tall structure in the middle of this building's sunken plaza to make the space more attractive to pedestrians.
2016 Lego issued a Chicago-themed building block set. It featured this building.
April 3, 2017 This building was featured in a Google doodle honoring structural engineer Fazlur Khan.
February, 2018 This building changed names from The John Hancock Center to 875 North Michigan Avenue. The John Hancock company asked the building owners to remove its name from the building. The Hancock company moved out years earlier.

Narrative

An iconic presence in a city of architectural icons, the 875 North Michigan 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 even children's drawings of Chicago. The building is photographed, idealized, and simplified into its various components and used for all things Chicago. It is visible everywhere, both looming in the distance, and in branding for all sorts of products and logos in the city and suburbs. But once you get beyond a 50-mile radius, the 875's identity begins to fade and become confused with its taller, younger, possibly even better-looking sibling, the Willis Tower.

It's not surprising that the majority of Americans confuse 875 North Michigan with the Willis 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 from the coasts are surprised to learn that Chicago has not one, but multiple supertowers.

In its simplest form, 875 North Michigan 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 the symbol of Chicago for millions of people.

The steel exoskeleton actually made construction cheaper. According to the AIA Guide to Chicago, the 100-story building was erected for about what it cost to build a 45-story office building of the era.

875 doesn't fuss with complicated 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 merely 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 this building was a game-changer for Chicago's North Side. Before 1969, North Michigan Avenue was lined with fairly uniform and elegant mid-rise and low-rise buildings that some compared to the look and feel of an Old World city. It's what gave Chicago the nickname Paris on the Prairie. When 875 North Michigan Avenue came online, it ushered in a wave of skyscraper building along the Magnificent Mile that transformed the boulevard into a modern canyon of commerce.

There was originally supposed to be two skyscrapers here, which is why it was originally 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.

Stacking Diagram

Level 100 Mechanical
Level 99 Mechanical
Level 98 Mechanical
Level 97 Transmission
Level 96 Restaurant
Level 95 Restaurant
Level 94 Observatory
Level 93 Mechanical
Level 92 Residential
Level 91 Residential
Level 90 Residential
Level 89 Residential
Level 88 Residential
Level 87 Residential
Level 86 Residential
Level 85 Residential
Level 84 Residential
Level 83 Residential
Level 82 Residential
Level 81 Residential
Level 80 Residential
Level 79 Residential
Level 78 Residential
Level 77 Residential
Level 76 Residential
Level 75 Residential
Level 74 Residential
Level 73 Residential
Level 72 Residential
Level 71 Residential
Level 70 Residential
Level 69 Residential
Level 68 Residential
Level 67 Residential
Level 66 Residential
Level 65 Lobby Residential
Level 64 Residential
Level 63 Residential
Level 62 Residential
Level 61 Residential
Level 60 Residential
Level 59 Residential
Level 58 Residential
Level 57 Residential
Level 56 Residential
Level 55 Residential
Level 54 Residential
Level 53 Residential
Level 52 Residential
Level 51 Residential
Level 50 Residential
Level 49 Residential
Level 48 Residential
Level 47 Residential
Level 46 Residential
Level 45 Residential
Level 44 Lobby Retail Amenities
Level 43 Mechanical
Level 42 Mechanical
Level 41 Office
Level 40 Office
Level 39 Office
Level 38 Office
Level 37 Office
Level 36 Office
Level 35 Office
Level 34 Office
Level 33 Office
Level 32 Office
Level 31 Office
Level 30 Office
Level 29 Office
Level 28 Office
Level 27 Office
Level 26 Office
Level 25 Office
Level 24 Office
Level 23 Office
Level 22 Office
Level 21 Office
Level 20 Office
Level 19 Office
Level 18 Office
Level 17 Office
Level 16 Office
Level 15 Office
Level 14 Office
Level 13 Office
Level 12 Parking
Level 11 Parking
Level 10 Parking
Level 9 Parking
Level 8 Parking
Level 7 Parking
Level 6 Parking
Level 5 Parking
Level 4 Parking
Level 3 Parking
Level 2 Lobby Retail
Level 1 Lobby Retail
Level LL1 Lobby Retail Mechanical

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