CHICAGO – The Sears Tower, one of the world's iconic skyscrapers and the tallest building in the U.S., was renamed the Willis Tower on Thursday in a downtown ceremony, marking a new chapter in the history of the giant edifice that has dominated the Chicago skyline for nearly four decades.
Mayor Richard Daley unveiled the tower's new name on a large black sign in the lobby with the help of Joseph Plumeri, the Chairman and CEO of Willis Group Holdings, the London-based insurance broker that secured the naming rights as part of its agreement to lease 140,000 square feet of space in the building.
"We believe in Chicago," Plumeri said. "You will find over time that Willis is not going to just have its name on the building, it's going to have an impact in society, in the community."
Plumeri said the company plans to bring hundreds of jobs to the city and help in the community. He presented a check for $100,000 to the volunteer organization Chicago Cares, said his company's 500 Chicago employees would help out the group and pledged to donate another $100,000 to Chicago 2016, the city's bid for that summer's Olympic Games.
Ten-year-olds Sophie Harwood and Hailey West of Barrington were among those who took pictures of the new signs Thursday morning. They said they'd still consider it the Sears Tower, though.
"It is kind of cool though because people who came before can say they came to the Sears Tower before it was the Willis Tower," Sophie said.
The 110-story skyscraper may officially have a new name for the first time since its 1973 opening, but many Chicago residents have said they aren't buying it.
"It's always going to be the Sears Tower. It's part of Chicago and I won't call it Willis Tower. In Chicago we hold fast," Chicago teacher Marianne Turk, 46, said as she stood in line this week to go up to the building's Skydeck.
The tower's original tenant, Sears Roebuck and Co., moved out in 1992 but its name remained. A real estate investment group, American Landmark Properties of Skokie, now owns the 1,450-foot-tall building.
Historically, skyscrapers have themselves been businesses, acting as a commodity to compete for high rents and tenants, said Carol Willis, founder and director of The Skyscraper Museum in New York.
"Naming rights are an asset of the building. They can be turned into money and that's what the new owners are doing," she said.
The Sears Tower isn't the only well known building to undergo a name change — New York City's Pan Am Building became the MetLife Building and Chicago's Standard Oil Building is now the Aon Center, Willis said.
But the public hasn't always taken to renamed skyscrapers. Many New Yorkers still refer to the Sony Building as the AT&T Building, said William Lozito, head of Minneapolis-based brand naming company Strategic Name Development. Getting the public to accept the Willis Tower name will be all the more difficult because the company is British and not immediately recognized by most Americans, he said.
"I don't think people are going to let go," Lozito said. "You don't mess with a landmark. It would be like trying to change the name of the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a reference point. I think it's disorienting to try to change the name."
The Chicago tower's owners acknowledge it will take time for some people to accept the new name, but they're confident it will happen eventually.
"It is an icon, but I believe over time it will become known as Willis Tower," said John Huston of American Landmark Properties, who represents the building ownership.
It's become common for professional sports teams to sell the naming rights of their stadiums and arenas, as Chicago White Sox fans can attest, when their team's stadium, Comiskey Park, renamed U.S. Cellular Field in 2003.
Alex Lucas, 29, an Arlington Heights business systems analyst who works down the street from the skyscraper, was so displeased with the name change that he started a Web site, www.itsthesearstower.com.
"Chicago is going to lose a big part of what is its identity and I don't know what's going to fill that space," Lucas said.
The new name isn't the only major change this year. Last month, owners announced a $350 million greening effort, complete with wind turbines and solar panels, along with plans for a 50-story luxury hotel. For tourists, glass-bottomed enclosed balconies on the 103rd Skydeck were opened earlier this month, giving visitors a 1,353-foot look straight down.
All these efforts were part of a plan aimed at remarketing the building as a pioneer and reintroducing it to the world, owners say.
Reluctance to let go of the name is understandable, said Plumeri, Willis Group Holdings' CEO. But, he added, "By the same token life moves on, nothing ever stays the same. Chicago is an evolving city."