Since I first wrote this story in 1999, I have visited some of the newest “supertall” buildings in the world and the amazing spaces within them: the 100th-floor Shanghai World Financial Center Skywalk with it’s partially transparent floor; International Commerce Center in Hong Kong and the amazing Ozone Bar on floor 118; the glass “ledges” on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower in Chicago; the egg-shaped “pod” in the five-story atrium atop KK100 in Shenzhen, China. Still, my most memorable experience by far was a visit to the roof of Aon Center in Chicago in 1999. At 1136 feet / 346 meters, Aon Center (originally the Standard Oil Building and then the Amoco Building) was listed as the fourth tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1973. Incredibly, as of this writing, it is in 44th place on the official CTBUH list of 100 tallest completed buildings in the world and falling fast. Amazingly, it will be out of the top 100 by the early 2020s.
Aon Center is perhaps best known for appearing in the opening credits of “Married… With Children” and for bearing the names of Chicago sports teams in big block letters when they are in the playoffs. Many Chicagoans probably don’t know Aon Center is 9 feet taller than the iconic John Hancock Center. Aon’s original owners, Standard Oil of Indiana, kept a curtain of corporate seclusion around the building for 25 years. There was no public observatory (though there has been recent talk of one) and no way to visit unless you were there on business. Media requests for access were routinely refused. In 1998, the Amoco Building was sold to new owners who sought to raise its public profile.
It was, in fact, a media request that got us up there. A production company for the Discovery Channel-Canada was doing a series on tall buildings and wanted to get on the roof of Sears Tower. They called me for advice on shooting locations and I immediately told them to get on the roof of Amoco instead. I’ve seen video taken atop Sears rendered useless by radio frequency radiation from the two large broadcast antennas. The price for my advice? Take me and my tall building cohort Marshall Gerometta along!
With lots of camera gear to transport to the roof, we were led straight past the white-marbled banks of passenger lifts, through plain steel doors and down a wonderfully unglamorous hallway to a freight elevator that swallowed our group with ease. The inside of the freight car was better than double the height of anormal floor in places and I could just imagine the office furniture and other equipment that is routinely stacked and transported in one of these things. This elevator was a Mack truck and not a Maserati, so our ride to the top floor was not the regular ear-popping 30 or 40-second dash. The elevator doors opened onto a floor with bare masonry walls and concrete floors.
Painted numerals on the wall told us we were on 80. The “Mid-America Club”, a wood paneled, members-only haunt for Chicago’s business elite was only a few hallways and doorways away. As posh as the 80th floor was, we were headed somewhere even more exclusive. I smiled to myself as we headed for the stairwell. Since 1973, the record books had told us the Amoco Building was 80 stories tall. As we climbed towards the roof, I was amused to see the painted floor markers go even higher. 81. 82. These were all mechanical floors. Part of the way up one stairwell, a sign straight out of Alice in Wonderland: 82-1/2. A bit bizarre, like floor 7-1/2 in “Being John Malkovich”. At Level 83 we ran out of stairs and entered a sparsely lit maintenance floor where we squeezed down a narrow walkway between machinery and electrical equipment. We were in Aon’s rooftop “garage” that housed, among other things, the building’s window washing equipment. I looked left and recognized bundles of heliax transmission line going to the dozens of small radio antennas on the roof. Finally we came to a plain gray steel door that led outside. Our group paused expectantly. Our escort, the building manager, stood with one hand on the doorknob and the anticipation built.
“This is it”, he said. “Are you ready?”
As I reached for my sunglasses, my mind flashed back to an experience I’d had on a tour as a news reporter years before. We were going through the brand new Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant in Port Gibson, Mississippi. At one point we had paused in front of a wide and massive steel door, an entrance to the plant’s reactor section. The tour guide warned us about the air pressure differential between where we were standing and where we were going. I volunteered to crack the door. Whoooosh! The heavy door blew open with a gust of rushing air, nearly knocking me off my feet.
The small steel door in front of me, which looked like something you would put on your garage, probably came from came from Home Depot. With the dramatic flair provided by our host, I had visions of being sucked out the doorway and hurled into a sky-blue void. The knob turned and the door quietly creaked open.
We stepped onto a brilliant gray and white island floating in limbo, a bizarre scene straight out of National Geographic, one of those Antarctic expeditions with blaring sunlight and a cold white landscape. Beyond the horizon of the building’s edge was nothing but sky and clouds. I had somehow not expected this. I turned to the right where, poking incongruously above the cold horizon, were the top 30 floors of the Sears Tower. Wow… this was like a dream. I sleepwalked towards this surreal vision When I cleared the western edge of the garage from which we had emerged, I looked to my right again. Barely above the horizon, with all of the drama of a total solar eclipse, were the top three floors and the antennas of the John Hancock Center. Stunning. I crouched so that my line of sight was even with the far edge of the roof. The Hancock’s top floors disappeared and nothing but the antennas showed -- visual confirmation that Aon is just barely taller than the “Big John”.
"Barely above the horizon, with all of the drama of a total solar eclipse, were the top three floors and the antennas of the John Hancock Center. "
Instead of there being a simple roof edge and a drop into oblivion, there is a waist-high parapet that runs the entire perimeter of the Aon Center’s roof. A parapet makes possible a tall building fanatic’s deepest desire, to lean over the edge of the building and look straight down in absolute safety. For many years, I wanted to see the view of the neighboring Prudential Buildings, 995 and 601 feet tall, from the top of Aon. Now, as I walked towards the western parapet, the rest of the city below suddenly came into view. YEOW… I stopped dead in my tracks. I’d seen views like this many times before, but always with a layer of thick glass in front of me. Thinking I would never forgive myself if I didn’t peek over at least once, I walked the final yards. With both feet planted firmly, I leaned against the parapet, laid both elbows on top, curled the fingers of my right hand over the edge and moved forward ver-ry slowly. My eyes cleared the building edge. Whooooosh! An updraft of warm air coming up the building facade caught me full in the face, ruffling my hair and blowing my necktie over my left shoulder. Magnificent!
Two Prudential’s 995-foot needle top jabbed menacingly at me from below; the rest of the building dropped perilously to the street. Further below, a thin row of dark windows marked the 41st floor of the original Prudential Building, formerly the observatory floor and once the city’s highest perch. I thought back to our last visit to the “Top of the Rock” in 1967, a gray day with low clouds and the top of Prudential’s antenna mast, now far below me, disappearing into the mist. I was an excited 8-year old and the Prudential was one of my favorite buildings.
For the next three hours, all of us leisurely enjoyed the rooftop. The camera crew shot video and conducted interviews with the top of Sears Tower as a backdrop. Marshall and I wandered and took in the view from every direction. I quickly got used to the building’s edge, and I came to relish the experience of putting my elbows on the parapets, resting my chin on my hands and experiencing the full view of the heights.
In the early afternoon, some of the building’s workers stopped to take a break in an open door of the rooftop garage. I talked to one of the workers, who had experienced this environment for fifteen years.
“I’ve been saying we ought to start keeping a camera up here because we see so many interesting things”, he said. He tells me about the winters when snow and ice paste the top of the building, of watching the approach of thunderstorms, of foggy mornings when nothing but the tops of the Sears and the John Hancock poke above the fog bank. The hair on the back of my neck goes up at the thought.
“Believe it or not, I’ve seen ants and grasshoppers up here”, he says. “I don’t know how they got up this high, unless maybe they got caught in an updraft or a whirlwind. One day I saw something that looked like a mouse. It was this huge waterbug. I looked it up in a book and its the kind that stands above the water and traps its prey. That’s the strangest thing we’ve ever found up here.” I knew what he was talking about. Years ago I had worked as an intern at CBS, in their old building on McClurg Court only blocks from Lake Michigan. Waterbugs would turn up in our office and some of them were whoppers.
Finally, it was time to go. We took the stairs back down to 80 and walked through a doorway from the building’s service core. Suddenly, disappointingly, we were back in the real world, a wood-paneled hallway that was the entrance to the Mid-America Club. As I stood waiting for the regular elevator to arrive, the distant windows beckoned. I glanced over at them, utterly disinterested.
Once in a great while, I dream of a supertall building that I cannot see, but whose presence I can feel (oddly, the few times I’ve actually seen this dream skyscaper, it is the pagoda-like Jin Mao Building in Shanghai where 13 years later, I actually did sleep). I know of the aerie atop this mysterious building, the knowledge it is extremely exclusive and the sensation of being there, like being on another planet entirely. But I don’t have this dream and actually find myself in that high place nearly enough.