Monday, September 13, 2010

Battle in the Sky Brings History Back to the Hancock

What once was old is new again.  The more years I gain, the more I see that things are cyclical.  But I didn't see this coming.

The seemingly friendly Battle of the Observation Decks being waged between the Sears Willis Tower (233 South Wacker Drive), and the John Hancock Center (875 North Michigan Avenue) has seen both sides dip into the old bag of tricks to bring in new customers.

The first shot was fired in July of last year when Willis opened "The Ledge."  If you haven't been to Skydeck Chicago (the current name for what used to be the Sears Skydeck) in a while, this is alone worth the price of admission.  Check out our previous piece on The Ledge for pictures and video.

While The Ledge is all high-tech glass, and physics calculations, and safety regulations, what it does is simulate the experience of hanging off the edge of a skyscraper.  To the majority of people in the 21st century, this is a novelty.  But it's not all that novel.

Hanging out on steel beams is a very late-19th and early-20th century thing to do.  Think back to black-and-white Looney Tunes, or those iconic photographs of construction workers just sort of sitting there, having lunch, perched on a girder hundreds of feet above the street below, without a care in the world.  The same lower-belly giddiness we experience looking at those photos is the same feeling we get to experience first-hand and intensified by visiting The Ledge.

The old thrills are new again.  Except you don't have to be a construction worker to experience it.  You can just pay your $15, close your eyes, and take one giant step into the air.

A year later, it's time for the Hancock Center to return fire.

Last week, newspapers around the world lit up with news about Big John's newest attraction, Skating in the Sky.

The idea is that there will be a skating rink on the 94th floor of the building.  That puts it 1,000 feet over North Michigan Avenue.  But it's not actual ice; it's a slippery synthetic substance that's being used.  Adolescent fantasies about crashing through the glass aside, skating at the Hancock is nothing new.

In fact, shortly after the John Hancock Center first opened, it had a real ice skating rink in the sunken plaza right in front of the building.  The plaza is a public amenity, required to get the zoning permits needed to build such a huge tower in what was then a low-rise area.

Reports of the day indicate that the skating rink was popular, and attracted crowds similar to those that now spin themselves into frigid dizziness at the McCormick-Tribune ice skating rink at Millennium Park.  But it didn't last.  It opened in the winter of 1971, and the following year, instead of ice it was covered with Christmas trees as a safety precaution because it was feared that winds whipped up by the Hancock Center would hurl debris from nearby construction projects at the helpless skaters.  By the winter of 1973, the ice was replaced by crushed rock and planters.  Skating at the Hancock faded from Chicago's collective memory shortly thereafter.

Interestingly, during the same time period there was another ice skating rink nearby at Lake Shore Park that is also gone.  People who have lived in the area far longer than me say the city used to be lousy with ice skating rinks, and nearly everyone enjoyed the sport from families to dating couples to loners and gangs of teen-agers.  But as the city's tastes matured and more and more people sought refuge in warm apartments with television sets to tick away the dark winters, the neighborhood skating rinks became fewer and fewer.

With any luck, the new rink at Millennium Park, plus the new fake skate at the Hancock Center will trigger a resurgence of good, wholesome, outdoor winter activity.  Lord knows Chicago's children could use a little less time playing virtual snowboarder on the Xbox, and more time learning how use their muscles to balance on some blades in a nearby park.

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