The giant of Michigan Avenue

Hancock Skyline

By Alyk Russell Kenlan
Medill Reports

Imagine waking up on the 80th floor, going down to work on the 35th floor, grabbing lunch on the second floor, stopping by the grocery store or dry cleaner on the 44th floor and eating dinner on the 95th floor before going back home to the 80th floor. Residents of 875 N. Michigan Ave., formerly the John Hancock Center, don’t have to imagine. Their amenity-rich, mixed-use skyscraper epitomizes the idea of a city within a city.

On March 7, 1970, the dedication of the John Hancock Center marked the beginning of a new architectural movement and the renewal of Chicago’s urban life in the Gold Cost. Since then, lessons from the building’s construction have inspired other iconic structures like the Willis Tower and the Trump Tower.

The History

In 1965, Jerry Wolman, a precocious real estate developer from Pennsylvania who bought the Philadelphia Eagles at 36, and started construction on the future skyscraper at 38.

The building would bankrupt him.

Wolman initially envisioned two buildings, one residential and one commercial. According to Judith Kaufman, 77, a docent for the Chicago Architectural Center, Wolman purchased one plot, but the neighboring private club, named Casino, never responded to his offers. Years later, after the John Hancock Center had been built, Casino discovered that their secretary had been hiding all of Wolman’s letters so that the club never sold, and she kept her job.

Undeterred, Wolman decided to stack residential and commercial buildings on top of each other to create the skyscraper that stands now. During construction, the structure began to tilt. Some of the support columns, which were dug 190 feet below Chicago, had air pockets as large as 15 feet and the foundation had to be re-dug. “It sent Wolman into bankruptcy. He had to sell his beloved Eagles,” Kauffman said. John Hancock, the life insurance company, stepped in and finished construction.

New Heights

The John Hancock Center heralded a new movement of mid-century architecture. Structural engineer Fazlur Khan of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill ran into challenges designing a supertall, mixed-use building. Retailers at the bottom needed open space, tenants of mid-level offices wanted windows, and the owners of residential units liked natural light through the whole apartment. Beyond changing space requirements, 875 N. Michigan Ave. also had to be strong enough not to fall over.

To solve the varying space requirements, Khan designed the building to be an obelisk that narrowed toward the top, said Bill Lipsman, a docent for the CAC. This choice led to another issue: how to support a building where each floor is a different size?

“Khan put steel columns around the outside of the floor and the elevator core, and then you wouldn’t need any other columns inside,” Lipsman said. “Khan knew those steel supports weren’t sufficient, so he came up with the X’s.” By putting strong supports around the outside, Khan pioneered a “braced tube.” Thus, a resident could take down every interior wall on a floor without affecting the structure.

Braced Tube
The supporting structure of the building is visible from outside. (Jonathan J. Castellon/Unsplash)

“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see [the John Hancock Center] being a million different things. Maybe they’ll hollow out five floors and put in a roller coaster or something,” said Daniel Safarik, editor-in-chief at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Building inside-out

Khan’s use of the braced tube design instantly revealed the engineering of 875 N. Michigan Ave. to any passerby. The style, known as structural expressionism, celebrated practicality — a stark contrast to the ornate art deco style seen in skyscrapers like the Empire State Building. The design movement began in earnest with the John Hancock Center, before spreading to iconic buildings like the HSBC building in Hong Kong and One World Trade Center in New York.

“Architecture, engineering and philosophy are together on this building,” said Bill Baker, who has been a structural engineer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for almost 40 years and worked on renovations to 875 N. Michigan Ave. “[John Hancock] was this very strong symbol that it was the working man’s building.” Seeing the structure of the building showed that the building itself was working as hard as those inside. “We always talked about the ‘City of the Big Shoulders,” Baker said. “It’s the building that any child can draw, and you will recognize it.”

The industrial, self-evident engineering of the building helps it stay iconic, according to Baker. He contrasted the John Hancock Center to the former Sears Tower, another Khan building, in that it is hard to draw in an easily distinguishable way,. From the 2003 Illinois state quarter to Chicago’s parking meter app, the John Hancock Center is an instantly recognizable symbol of the city. “An architecturally naive observer understands, somehow innately, how the building works and what it’s about. No one can ever do a building like that because this one was done so well,” Baker said.

A changing society

In 1885, Chicago was the birthplace of the first skyscraper, the 138-foot-tall Home Insurance Building. Construction in Chicago continued ever higher until the Great Depression. In the 1940s, all steel went to the war effort instead of construction. And by the late 1960s, America had moved to the suburbs. The John Hancock Center brought America back to Chicago through mixed-use space and the Khan’s inventive design.

Commercial, residential and leisure areas in one space offered unparalleled convenience to Chicago residents who may have otherwise moved to the suburbs. Until the late 1960s, buildings were only homes or workplaces, Safarik said. 875 N. Michigan Ave. offered all the comforts of suburban life with the ease of city living.

Leslie Borosovak, 60, who has lived in the John Hancock Center for 15 years, loves its self-contained design. “I thought this building was a concrete jungle. I wasn’t sure if I was gonna like it, and I absolutely love it. It’s so convenient,” she said. “If the weather’s bad in the winter, you don’t have to go outside.”

For residents, the John Hancock Center creates a close-knit community. For some, it’s their whole life. “I met a guy in his 30s who lives in the building,” Borosovak said. “He said he was raised here in the building, his old babysitter lives here. His parents are on one floor, and he’s on another.”

To some, living in the skyscraper legitimizes their time in Chicago. 875 N. Michigan Ave. is the quintessential Windy City residence. According to Baker, living in the Hancock Center is popular among new hires at SOM who want to live behind a crossbeam and have their moment of architectural history “It makes me feel good,” Borosovak said. “I say I live in John Hancock, and people say, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!'”

The next fifty years

Safarik and Baker both said the building’s architectural flexibility will keep it relevant and iconic for years to come. Current residents, like Borosovak, see millennials and young families moving into the building, bringing contemporary lifestyles to a now-classic building. Moreover, the building grows with each new resident bringing a new personal and touch of modernity. “A building is a lot like us, and as we age, we need to change our wardrobe,” Lipsman said.

Photo at top: The John Hancock Center has towered over Michigan Avenue for 50 years. (Jonathan J. Castellon/Unsplash)