By Jay Kozlarz, Curbed Chicago
Chicago’s battle for observation deck supremacy could turn into a three-way fight if the owners of the Aon Center get approval to build a 1000-foot-long glass elevator to brings tourists to new attractions slated for the tower’s 82nd and 83rd floors.
The proposal, which was publicly unveiled Monday evening, would see Aon’s observatory go head to head against the Skydeck of Willis Tower and the 360 Chicago observatory at 875 N. Michigan Avenue, formerly the Hancock Center.
While rumors of an observation deck for the top of Chicago’s third tallest building were reported before current owner 601W Companies completed its $712 million acquisition of the property in mid 2015, Monday’s presentation provided the public with its first look at Aon’s proposed $185 million tourist-focused upgrade.
Keen to capitalize on the foot traffic of Millennium Park, the observatory will be accessed via a new entrance pavilion at the office building’s southeast corner. Designed by architect Solomon Cordwell Buenz, the addition is angular to evoke the tower’s chevron shaped vertical columns.
From here, guests would move below street level, clear security, and travel diagonally across the site to its northwest corner to board a pair of double-decker elevators enclosed in a glass shaft attached to the stone tower’s exterior. The orientation of the elevators minimizes their visual impact from the park and the lakefront.
Described by its designers as one of—if not the—tallest glass-walled elevators in the world, the 1200-foot-per-minute lift not only provides a thrilling ride for its occupants but also side-steps the tower’s existing elevator system, which is currently running at full capacity. The new elevator’s mechanical overrun will extend beyond Aon’s roof, bumping overall height from 1,117 to 1,136 feet.
At its pinnacle lies the new observatory in a space once occupied by the skyscraper’s relocated A/C system. To accommodate a scenic lookout, the facade of the tower’s top floors will be opened by removing two out of every three exterior columns. The move is great for occupant visibility but does compromise the powerful vertically of tower’s appearance.
The observatory’s double-height “Sky Street” would allow guests to meanders around the space and take in views from every side as well as interact with touchscreens embedded in the remaining vertical pylons. Additional attractions include a “Sky Cafe,” a cocktail lounge, a partially enclosed deck for an open-air experience, and an “Ultra Flight” simulation that allows customers to pilot a virtual drone around a 3D model of downtown.
The pièce de résistance, however, will be a new thrill ride built into the southern edge of Aon’s rooftop. Known as “Sky Summit,” it features a tubular pod that slowly and silently pivots on swing arms as it moves upwards and outward, away from the building. The cabin’s glass floor then electronically transitions from solid to transparent to give occupants an unforgettable view.
Unlike the external elevator, the placement of the Sky Summit will make it hard to miss from the park below. The moving attraction could prove particularly eye-catching if it is illuminated like the “Tilt” ride at 360 Chicago. “The Sky Summit builds on Chicago’s history of thrill attractions daring back to the advent of the Ferris Wheel,” said Phil Hettema who’s firm the Hettema Group is overseeing the observatory’s attractions and programming.
Aon’s high-tech tourist experience will also feature “dynamic media” installations focusing on the history and cultural contributions of Chicago. Even the elevator will feature some type of multimedia “distraction” for passengers uncomfortable with looking outside during the high-speed ascent and descent.
The observatory and glassy high-speed elevator would be accompanied by streetscape upgrades, including a wider sidewalks and traffic calming measures on Upper Columbus Drive. The Aon team vow to coordinate infrastructure improvements with the developers of hotel and apartment high-rise slated for Lake Shore East’s “Site O” parcel across the street.
Although the Aon Center does not qualify for landmark protection due to a 1990s re-clad that saw the 1973 tower’s original marble facade replaced with hardier granite slabs, the addition will still require a zoning amendment and is therefore subject to city oversight and approval.
If all goes smoothly, the development team hopes to open Chicago’s third observatory some time in 2020 following roughly two years of construction. For look at the closer look at the plans as well as videos of the elevator and thrill attraction in action, be sure to check out the proposed observatory’s official website.