Preservation Magazine, Spring 2016

First Look: The First Sears Tower

Nichols Tower

photo by: Darris Lee Harris/Foundation for Homan Square

Before the 110-story Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) opened in downtown Chicago in 1973, there was another, smaller Sears tower five miles west. Built in 1905, the 14-story structure—the centerpiece of the 55-acre Sears, Roebuck and Co. headquarters—held management offices and an observation deck.

After sitting empty since the 1980s, the Neoclassical tower reopened last November, following a three-year, $17 million renovation funded in part by historic tax credits. Crews repaired or replaced the windows and restored hardwood flooring. Two elevators were rebuilt and two more were turned into a stairway. New Millennium Construction re-created much of the original plasterwork, and a 200,000-gallon water tank, which served as the building’s fire suppression system, was drained and removed.

Renamed Nichols Tower for funders John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols, the building, part of the Homan Square revitalization effort, now serves as a hub for job training, arts education, economic enterprise, and other community programs.

“This tower is a beacon,” says Kristin Dean, president of the Homan Square Foundation. “Everyone here knows somebody who worked for Sears, so it was important for us to find uses for it that would benefit the community. We wanted it to be a place of hope.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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