What Made Chicago’s Hancock Center A Trailblazing Skyscraper? | WBEZ
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Curious City

These Four Design Ideas Turned ‘The Hancock Center’ Into An Iconic Skyscraper

Corrections: In the audio story, we misidentified the first tube structure designed by Fazlur Khan and Bruce Graham. The first tube structure designed by the pair was the Dewitt Chestnut Apartments. We also misrepresented the year when Jerry Wolman approached SOM. That year was 1964.

Sofia Madden grew up in Minneapolis and would take family vacations to Chicago during the summer. She remembers sitting in the car for seven long, boring hours and then finally seeing Chicago’s skyline — with the John Hancock Center looming over it.

“And that was the dominating force,” Sofia says, “and the surge of excitement me and my brothers would feel, knowing we were close to the city.”  

During those visits her family used to stay near the Hancock. They shopped nearby at the Lego and American Girl stores, and usually made it to the top of the Hancock to take in the view. But Sofia says she never knew too much about the building itself. So she reached out to Curious City with a question:

Why is the John Hancock Center so important to Chicago’s history?

The John Hancock Center (now officially known as 875 N. Michigan Ave.) isn’t just important to Chicago; it’s important to city skylines across the world. When it was completed 50 years ago, it changed what architects and engineers thought was possible.

We explore the design innovations that led to its construction in the video below:


More about our questioner

Sofia Madden is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. When her family used to take those car trips to Chicago from Minneapolis, she often wondered where the John Hancock Building got its name.

She says she just assumed that since John Hancock was known for his giant signature on the Declaration of Independence, that must be why such a giant building was named after him.

"I always think it's funny thinking about the story that I made up in my head because it just works so well," she says.

These summer vacations in the city showed Sofia a Chicago defined by its busy downtown streets, variety of shopping options and tall buildings like the John Hancock. But a summer internship brought Sofia to Chicago for three months in 2018, and the time she spent living in the city totally changed her perception of Chicago.

"My view of it beforehand was just the River North, that same area, basically memorizing everything around the John Hancock Building," she says. "And then living there this summer I realized how much more there is to the city."

Special thanks to Bill Baker of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Adam Gilgour of 360 Chicago.

Jesse Dukes is the audio producer for Curious City. Follow him at @CuriousDukes

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