Our friend A.J Latrace over at Curbed Chicago recently found out Chicago’s beloved John Hancock building may be up for a name change. Will this fly over any better than the changing of the Sear’s Tower to Willis Tower? If you’re a true Chicagoan, you wouldn’t be caught dead saying Willis Tower!
In terms of architecture and engineering, the John Hancock Center is one of the most significant buildings—in size and in influence—in the Chicago skyline. Like Jordan and Pippen, Jake and Elwood, Ferris and Sloan, Steve Urkel and Carl Winslow, the Willis (Sears to locals) Tower and Hancock Center together are one of the most iconic and immediately identifiable Chicago duos. But unlike fictional characters and legendary athletes, the Hancock Center is a building. It’s a piece of the cityscape with ownership, and one of the rights of its owner is that of naming.
Rumors of a possible name change go back at least a year and a half, but more recent reports suggest that it’s more likely to happen now than ever. Last week, the Chicago Tribune shared intel on a possible deal to sell off the building’s office space, vehicle parking, and naming rights. And being one of Chicago’s most prominent buildings, it’s likely that an entity paying hundreds of millions of dollars for the tower’s office space will seek a return on their investment by offering naming rights to the highest bidder or largest commercial tenant.
But should the John Hancock Center be renamed? As a building that helped immortalize its chief architects Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan in the world of design and engineering and launched Chicago into a league of its own in building ambitious record-breaking skyscrapers, is it appropriate to rename it? When it comes to preservation, we generally think about a building’s physical structure, but what about its name? Is a name worth saving?
Chicago’s historic buildings are constantly being adapted, reused, and renamed. Just look to the city’s old high-rises and industrial buildings that are seeing new life as boutique hotels and office developments. It’s also equally as common—if not much more so—for buildings to be renamed after an anchor tenant or sponsor. Renaming buildings and structures is standard practice in the world of professional sports and corporate office space. But does the Hancock Center’s importance in the Chicago skyline and the city’s architectural legacy precede its function and role as simply a building?
Should the new owners of the John Hancock Center exercise their right to monetize the iconic building by allowing a partner or sponsor to have their name on the building? Or should the Hancock Center always remain the Hancock Center? What do you call the Willis Tower? How do you feel when you call Chicago’s tallest building the Willis Tower? Does it even matter what a building is called? Please discuss in the comments.