Livin’ on The Ledge

Today’s Wisch List newspaper column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Livin’ on The Ledge


July 11, 2009

At the Sears Tower, they don’t just measure height in feet.

They measure it in celebrities.

Purchase a ticket for a trip to the top of North America’s tallest building and you’ll soon learn that the 110-story Sears Tower not only stands 1,450 tall.

It stands 262 Michael Jordans high, as well.

Or 313 Oprahs, if you prefer to measure in talk show queens.

Last week, however, atop the Chicago’s trademark skyscraper, it was a celebrity of a different sort – one with glass skin, but plenty of beating hearts – that was creating a buzz even MJ or Oprah would envy.

Say hello to The Ledge.

I did.

Braving the crowds – and the heights – a week ago Friday, I visited the Sears Tower’s much-ballyhooed new addition: A quartet of enclosed glass boxes known collectively as The Ledge because they stick out about four feet from the 103rd floor Skydeck.
And leave you peering 1,353 feet straight down.

Thanks to the unique attraction, which opened to the public on July 2, visitors to the Sears Tower can now get a panoramic view of Chicago that previously was reserved only for their dreams.

Or, I suppose, their nightmares.

On a clear day atop the tower, you’ve always been able to see 50 miles away in any direction. But now you also can stare 50 miles past your toes to Wacker Drive below.

At least, it seems that way.

Management at the tower said the notion to hang glass boxes from the Skydeck was sparked by years of watching visitors – think Ferris Bueller – press their foreheads against the glass walls to get a look down. Now they have an unobstructed view – and Sears Tower custodians fewer smudges to clean.

The Ledge’s boxes, which are about the size of large elevators and suspended by 30-pound steel beams, reportedly can support at least 5 tons apiece.

That’s equivalent to the weight of an elephant, which should make the queasier more comfortable when they step onto The Ledge. Although, discovering that the boxes also retract into the building when the windows get washed, might send them leaping right back out.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, the architecture firm that originally designed the Sears Tower in the early 1970s, spent a year and a half designing and constructing The Ledge. And among the challenges faced was that at times the Windy City’s wicked winds wouldn’t allow workers to construct the boxes from inside the tower.

Last week, however, many visitors seemed as if they could use a little wind – in their sails – as they flirted with The Ledge.

“I sort of went out there,” Waterford, Mich., teenager Scott Christopher said. “I stuck my foot out. But that was about it.”

Now, heights don’t particularly frighten me. But I still felt my pulse quicken a bit when I took my first step onto The Ledge. And after spending a couple minutes snapping photos and admiring the view, I then spent several more watching others do the same – or fail to.

Because, as amusing as The Ledge is, the real show is watching other people experience it.  It’s high entertainment.

In my opinion, the view from the Sears Tower Skydeck has always been inferior to that of the John Hancock Building’s 95th-floor Signature Room. It’s shorter, but closer to Lake Michigan and looks down over the Mag Mile. Plus, you can get a Martini there.

The Ledge, though, is just the shot of adrenalin the broad shoulders of the Sears Tower sorely needs. After all, it’s been a rough year for the 35-year-old Chicago icon.

In February, its owners pitched the cockamamie idea of re-covering the tower in silver to improve its energy performance.  And now later this summer, Sears will frustratingly change its name to Willis after its new owner, London-based insurance broker Willis Group Holdings, Ltd.

That move, to me, is akin to renaming Mount Rushmore, because the Sears Tower is more than a mere building. It’s a national monument.

One that features national figures, such as poet Carl Sandburg who has a quote painted on the wall by the Skydeck elevators that take you back down to the ground.

It reads, “Show me another city so glad to be alive.”

Sandburg just as easily could have said the same about Chicago’s people after seeing the faces of those who had braved The Ledge.

And even lived to tell about it.

To purchase tickets to the Sears Tower SkyDeck, visit My tip: Purchase online rather than at the tower. You’ll move through lines much quicker once inside the building.

I ain't afraid of no heights
I ain't afraid of no heights

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  1. “The Ledge’s boxes, which are about the size of large elevators and suspended by 30-pound steel beams, reportedly can support at least 5 tons apiece” = possibly the most terrifying use of “reportedly” ever. That’s one “reportedly” I hope is never tested!

    Incidentally, I cannot WAIT to go stand on The Ledge. Love the idea 🙂

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