Unwelcome Willis

Sears Tower name change is a joke

Shakespeare was wrong: A rose by any other name would not smell as sweet. Sometimes a name becomes inextricably linked with the pleasure of the thing.

And so it is with the Sears Tower, which officially became the Willis Tower today and has unofficially become the biggest butt of jokes in the city -- if by biggest we mean biggest.

After all, it was Willis CEO Joe Plumeri who suggested we call the Chicago icon "Big Willie."

Please, Joe, stop it. You're killing me.

It's not that we have an outsized love for the Sears Corporation around here -- or that the building is nearly as beloved as the Hancock (no jokes, Joe).

But sometimes even a corporate name transcends itself; few folks think of Wrigley gum when they think of Wrigley Field, or even United Airlines when they think of the United Center -- even if that name is a transgression against the old Chicago Stadium.

But the Sears Tower was a name that came to take on its own identity, quite apart from that of the department store chain. Like the lost Marshall Field's name or the dispatched Comiskey Park moniker, it was a part of us -- even if most Chicagoans probably don't feel particularly sentimental about the cold, off-putting building.

"This is like changing architecture history," Chicago architect Lira Luis writes to NBCChicago.com. "The name is part of history and named specific to the building. To change it is like losing historical coherence."

But historical coherence means nothing in a naming-rights age in which we are reminded repeatedly that everything is for sale. Is nothing beyond commerce?

Worse, the British-based Willis will use just three floors in the building -- 3.7 percent of occupancy. But it "believes that gaining the naming rights for Sears Tower is a simple solution to becoming a household name in the U.S."

If the name catches on. There's no assurance, though, that it will.

"Unless the police will be issuing tickets or arresting us for referring to it as the Sears Tower, I am not going to sign up for the new change," Mark Schmandt writes to us in a sentiment we think we can safely presume is widely held.

"Has any other city had to endure the major building name changes that Chicago has?" reader Loren England asks. "How long has the Chrysler Building and Empire State held their names since they were built!! It's humbug!"

The Willis folks are also stepping on the momentum of the wildly successful introduction of the Ledge.

"Willis should have named the new glass observation decks the Willis Observatories and it would have had just as strong of an impact," Schmandt suggests.

The renaming of the Sears Tower is not the biggest deal in the world, nor anywhere near even the middle of the list of rank injustices in Chicago history.

But the truth is that the Sears Tower by any other name doesn't stand as tall.

Steve Rhodes is the proprietor of The Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news and culture review.

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