Willis Tower's renovated viewing point is not for the faint of heart
Those who take an elevator ride up to the 103rd floor of Chicago's iconic Willis Tower will now find a newly renovated Skydeck Chicago viewing point and museum experience. The main attraction is the Ledge, which consists of four glass boxes extending outward, allowing visitors to step outside the main structure of the tower and peer down at the city below.
The Willis Tower (aka Sears Tower) is an important building in the history of skyscrapers. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which also handled this recent Skydeck renovation, it was originally completed in 1973 and stood as the world's tallest skyscraper for 25 years. Even now, it's a very tall building, at 442 m (1,450 ft) in height and remains the USA's third-tallest tower.
The Ledge is the headline-grabbing part of Skydeck Chicago and was originally installed in 2009. It consists of four glass boxes that extend 4.3 ft (1.3 m) out from the Willis Tower. These are made up of three layers of 0.5-in (1.27-cm)-thick glass laminated into one unit.
They have been given an overhaul since an incident in 2019 when the glass floor cracked under the weight of visitors. Though terrifying, the damage was minor and only involved an outer protective layer. SOM says that on a good day, you can enjoy views of up to 50 miles (80 km) and four states and it's actually the highest observation point in the USA, even higher than KPF's The Edge in New York City.
Views and accessibility have been improved, lighting tweaked, and the decor changed, along with more mundane but necessary upgrades to the structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
Aside from the actual viewing point, the experience begins on lower floors, where visitors are guided through a new interactive museum detailing Chicago's culture and history. Highlights include information on the Great Chicago Fire, a full-scale 'L' Train replica, and a flying video tour of the city's skyline, as well as architectural models of major buildings.
Elsewhere in the tower, restoration work is ongoing to upgrade and modernize available office space, as well as add a large outdoor terrace garden. A new new five-level restaurant has also been installed on the lower levels.
"Willis Tower is synonymous with Chicago's skyline," says Scott Duncan, SOM Design Partner. "Envisioned in our studios more than 50 years ago, its design continues to inspire us today. In creating the new Skydeck, we wanted to honor the structural clarity and simplicity of the tower's original design approach. We wanted to create a quiet backdrop for people to be fully immersed in the city's skyline and allow the view to speak for itself."
The project also involved Thinc Design, and Chicago Scenic Studios and EQ Office. If you'd like to visit in person, it opened on April 23 and tickets start at US$28 each.