The Skydeck at Willis Tower reopened to visitors this week following a three-year renovation led by EQ Office. At 1,353 feet in the air, the sky-high attraction offers some of the best views in Chicago as well as new enhancements that showcase the city's history, culture, architecture, and food.
Guests now enter the Skydeck through Catalog, a glass-topped food hall and atrium which was added to the tower's base in 2019, and descend two levels underground. From there, they navigate an interactive "experience" designed to entertain and inform ticketholders as they make their way to the high-speed elevators.
Part museum, part Instagram trap, the new exhibit traces Chicago's roots as a frontier trading post through the Great Fire and its emergence as a modern metropolis. There's an emphasis on local architecture as well as the engineering that went into the Willis—then Sears—Tower becoming the world's tallest building in 1973 and holding that title for 25 years. The exhibit also pays homage to Chicago's cultural traditions with nods to everything from Blues Music to the Second City comedy troupe and Oprah Winfrey.
For newbie visitors who know little about the Windy City, the experience does a fine job of contextualizing all it has to offer. Seasoned Chicago natives are likely to learn something too, but will probably roll their eyes at some of the more tourist-oriented aspects of the exhibit like a 10-foot-wide deep-dish pizza and a hallway designed to mimic the look and movement of CTA 'L' car.
An ear-popping elevator ride reveals the real star of the show which, of course, is still the Skydeck itself. The 103rd-floor observatory has also been "reimagined" by the building's owners, but the renovations follow a Miesian less-is-more approach. In fact, some casual visitors may be hard-pressed to spot any of the changes—and that's kind of the point.
The tower's original architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was brought in to give the Skydeck a minimalist makeover that highlights the view as well as the building's structure.
The interior columns mirror the brawny dark metal piers of the exterior, and dropped ceiling panels were replaced by an unfinished black ceiling concealing enhanced lighting and new speakers. Many columns feature embedded interactive touch-screen displays that allow visitors to learn about what they're seeing out the windows.
"We wanted to honor the structural clarity and simplicity of the tower's original design approach," explained SOM's Scott Duncan. "We wanted to create a quiet backdrop for people to be fully immersed in the city’s skyline and allow the view to speak for itself."
The changes also allow people to get much closer to the glass. You no longer have to climb Ferris Bueller style over floor-mounted ventilation units to peer downward.
Guests seeking the ultimate view of the ground (and a jolt of adrenaline) can still step out on "the Ledge"—four glass boxes protruding off the Skydeck's western elevation. Also designed and engineered by SOM, the Ledge was installed in 2009 and continues to be a hit with visitors.
The revamped Skydeck is now open on a limited basis with timed ticketing and other safety protocols in place. General admission is $28.00 to $35.00 for adults (depending on the date and the time of day) and $22.00 to $26.00 for children ages 3 to 11. Advanced tickets are highly recommended.