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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

05 July 2009

The Name Game

And now I find out - a little late, as usual - that the tallest building in the western hemisphere, formerly the tallest building in the world, the Sears Tower in Chicago, Illinois will soon be known as the Willis Tower. What the… Willis Tower? Whatchootalkingabout, Willis?

It seems that the Willis Group Holdings, an insurance company based in London, England is renting office space in the 1,450 foot tall Sears Tower. The rental agreement specifies that they can put their own corporate name on the building.

Why on earth would they do that, you ask? Why change the name of an iconic landmark that’s had the same identity since 1973?

Simple. First of all, because they can. But then… It turns out that the Aon Corporation, also a big competing insurance conglomerate which is based in Chicago, has their headquarters in the third-largest building in that city, the 1,136 foot tall Aon Center.

Get the picture? Willis will now be able to say that “their” building is taller than Aon’s.

Well whoop-de-friggin-do. This is what passes for important executive decisions in the new Corporate America.

It is worth noting that Sears, Roebuck & Co. commissioned the building for their corporate headquarters - the building that would bear their name. So regardless of who owns the actual piece of real estate, it can legitimately be called the “Sears” building forever.

Not that Willis now owns the Sears Tower, mind you…just as Aon doesn’t own the Aon Center. Willis is taking only 140,000 square feet of the Sears Tower, in which there is 3.8 million square feet of rentable space. So Willis is utilizing less than half of one percent. Sticking their corporate logo on the buildings is more than a little disingenuous since neither controls the entire property. Willis and Aon are merely the "primary tenants" in their respective buildings. The real owners of the buildings are allowing Willis and Aon to use them as billboards.

On the other hand, when the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company bought the Pan Am Building in Manhattan from that airline in 1981, they didn’t immediately put their own name on it (although they probably could have). That didn't happen until Pan Am went out of business in 1991. And although the building has been sold yet again (in 2005), the new owners (an investment group) have so far opted to leave the “MetLife” logo on the building, perhaps recognizing the landmark recognition value.

The Old Pan Am Building

The "New" MetLife Building

It will be curious to see whether people (especially Chicagoans) will accept and adapt to the name change, or whether it’ll continue to be known as the Sears Tower. It would be funny if it was the latter. Can you imagine the CEO of Willis, overhearing people - perhaps his own employees - referring to “his” building by its former name? “No, it’s the WILLIS TOWER, you idiots! WILLIS TOWER! Get it through your heads, it’s not the Sears Tower anymore. WILLIS TOWER!!” Then he goes home and kicks his dog. Heh. It would serve him right. (The CEO, not the dog.)

Speaking of landmarks and name-changes, in New York City there are Consolidated Edison electric power plants in various places. One is in Queens, close to LaGuardia Airport. It has five pairs of twinned smokestacks. It is distinctive enough to be used as a reporting point for the helicopters that are always buzzing around the city. Air traffic controllers refer to this point as, no surprise here, the “ten stacks.” It is even marked that way on an aeronautical chart.

Nearby, slightly north of the "ten stacks" but up in the Bronx there used to be another power plant. It only had five single smokestacks, and the La Guardia controllers referred to it that way: the “five stacks.” We had to know which was which because of their importance due to their proximity to the approach/departure path of one of the airport’s runways.

Eventually, the actual five smokestacks themselves were torn down, leaving nothing but a big brick building that was eventually demolished. For a while, controllers referred to that piece of land as the “no stacks.” Those of us who flew around the city regularly knew which building they meant, but it often confused out-of-town pilots. I always chuckled when I heard a controller tell a pilot to, “…report the no-stacks” and that pilot would reply, “Wilco.” Heh-heh, the no-stacks.

Looking at the above map (you might have to right-click and select "Open Link in New Window"), the former Con-Ed "five stacks" plant in the Bronx was just across the water from the “ten stacks," close to where the box with the word “Bronx” in it appears on the blue route. The area has changed a lot now, and the power plant itself it gone. An old-timer like me could pinpoint the location from the air, but it’s irrelevant. I doubt any of the current air traffic controllers would know anything about the "no-stacks."

I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist. To me, it'll always be the "Pan Am Building." And so I lament the changing of the name of the Sears Tower. It’d be like changing the name of Central Park to, oh, “Trump Park” or "The Michael Jackson Memorial Park." It might happen, but nobody is ever going to call it that. Certainly not I.

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