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The Chicago Traveler

John Hancock Center: the OTHER Black Skyscraper

by Matt B on May 26th, 2008

Earlier today, I wrote about Chicago's architectural icon, the Sears Tower. I feel it necessary now to write about its older, shorter brother, the John Hancock Center.

john hancock center

It amazes me just how many tourists confuse the two. To me, the Sears Tower and John Hancock look nothing alike. Whereas the Sears Tower is made of nine square columns, the John Hancock is a single tower gripped by a series of cross braces. It is the third-tallest skyscraper in Chicago (following the Sears Tower and the Aon Center) and the fifth-tallest in the country. At the tip of its antennas, it stands at 1500 feet (457 m) with 100 floors, home to offices, restaurants, and 700 condominiums. In fact, the John Hancock contains the highest residences in the world.

john hancock centerPerhaps people confuse the two buildings because they were built within 5 years of each other or because both are intimidating black blocks of steel and glass. And both are unique features of the Windy City, their likenesses found in photographs, movies, logos, etc. The X's that make the John Hancock so identifiable though aren't just for decoration. The braces actually eliminate the need for inner support beams, which allows for even more floor space.

The John Hancock also is not just a boring black box. It actually narrows as it rises, tapering by a total of 105 feet (32 m) on the east and west sides and 65 feet (20 m) on the north and south. This play on perspective makes the tower appear even taller than it is.

john hancock centerChicago had been known for great architecture for years, but the John Hancock Center really opened the door for downtown skyscrapers. Before its construction, Michigan Avenue was lined with low-rise buildings that all looked the same. After 1969 and the completion of the tower though, the Magnificent Mile and it surrounding streets soon came to be home to several buildings reaching for the sky.

Finally, the building's first resident was Benjamin Gingiss, one of the founders of Gingiss Formalwear. (I got my prom tuxedos from there! The Chicago business was eventually sold to competitor Men's Wearhouse.) Comedian Chris Farley also lived in the John Hancock until his death in 1997, and Jerry Springer, who still lives there, was his next-door neighbor.

john hancock centerRemember, the Signature Lounge is also housed here on the 96th floor, where the women's restrooms are considered the best in the city. The ride up will be a short one: the elevators are the fastest in the United States, traveling 95 stories in 40 seconds. (That's 20 miles per hour! [32 kph]) General admission to the Observatory is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors (65+), and $8 for children (ages 4-11). Individual tours and audio tours cost extra. The John Hancock Observatory is also one of over 25 attractions whose admission is included with the Go Chicago Card. Call (312-944-5994) for information on parking rates.

Photo credit: (c/o Flickr) wallyg (1, 2), Vlastula, ramon82

John Hancock Center: 875 N Michigan Ave; 312-751-3681
Observatory Hours
Daily: 9:00 a.m. ' 11:00 p.m.
Street parking difficult; pay lot available
Public trans: Bus # 143, 144, 145, 146, 147, 148, 151 or Red Line (Chicago)
3-D View (Google Earth required)

POSTED IN: Architecture & Attractions

9 opinions for John Hancock Center: the OTHER Black Skyscraper

  • A Different Matt B
    May 27, 2008 at 10:24 am

    I lived in Chicago for a year and a half and this was my number one travel tip:

    Grab a drink in the Signature Lounge atop the John Hancock building. It’ll cost you just as much to simply go to the top of the Sears Tower, but this way you get a view AND a drink.

  • "T" Time
    May 27, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    […] tall buildings? Chicago's three tallest buildings are the Sears Tower, the Aon Center, and the John Hancock Center, all standing well over one thousand feet tall (305 […]

  • Matt B
    May 27, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Absolutely, Matt. It also can make for a very impressive date spot.

  • Jon The DC Traveler
    May 29, 2008 at 8:50 am

    My father worked next door at the Continental Plaza (now the Westin) and I recall the parking garage being torn down to make room for the building’s foundation.

    If I recall, at that time, the 41 story Purdential Building topped the skyline.

  • Matt B
    May 29, 2008 at 9:34 am

    My prom was actually held in the Westin.

    I wonder if the workers had found any creepy things during that construction. Apparently, the JHC was built on the location of the very first Chicago cemetery. All of the graves were supposed to have been moved to Lincoln Park, but every once in a while a body will still turn up during construction in the area.

  • A Different Matt B
    May 29, 2008 at 9:39 am


    Reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard involving renovation and construction at the Green Mill in Uptown - which was supposedly an old hang out of Al Capone…? Rumor has it Scarface had tunnels built underneath it and, when they were renovated, workers found some remains down there.

    Who knows…maybe just an urban legend.

  • Matt B
    Jun 1, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    While I DO know that the Green Mill was a hangout of Capone’s, I’m afraid I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any tunnels or bodies…

  • Chicago May Have America’s Best Restroom
    Jul 15, 2008 at 9:03 am

    […] Best Public Restroom.' Two are from Illinois: the restrooms at the Signature Lounge in the John Hancock and the bathrooms at Brio, a restaurant in […]

  • Big John, the John Hancock Building in Chicago, Illinois
    Aug 20, 2008 at 6:07 am

    […] on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, the John Hancock Building (or Big John), is the third tallest of the three 100+ story skyscrapers that dominate Chicago's […]

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