Blue light special

Don't go into the light. That seems to be the agreed-upon advice from people who make it back down from the heavens after a near-death experience.

Someday, we'll all go into that light -- sorry, but it's true, at least metaphorically -- but very few people will get the chance to go into the spectacular 20-foot-high light that sits atop the Metropolitan Tower, at 310 S. Michigan Ave., 457 feet in the sky.

If you've never noticed the glass and steel lantern before, you should take a look: It's shaped like a giant beehive (hence the building's nickname, the Beehive Building) and hovers above four tremendous carillon bells that play Handel's "Cambridge Quarters," supported by four carved stone bison standing sentinel over the city. At night it glows an ethereal cobalt blue. It's lovely.

"I haven't been up since I was 12 years old," said Louis D'Angelo, whose late father bought the 1924 Graham, Anderson, Probst & White office building in 1977 as office space. (He also owned the Civic Opera House in the 1980s.) It was originally the Straus Building, named for the influential investment banking firm S.W. Straus & Co. For the last 20 years it had been the Britannica Centre, housing the encyclopedia publisher.

Today the younger D'Angelo is converting the building into 242 condominiums, and on a gloriously clear Chicago morning he led a hard-hatted tour into the light, first by elevator to the 22nd floor. This would have been the top floor, but the builders took advantage of a 1923 zoning ordinance that permitted residential buildings with facade setbacks to rise above 260 feet.

It was the tallest building in Chicago -- 30 floors -- for "about five minutes," said D'Angelo, who continued to climb the fire stairwell, past several wide-open floors in various states of raw construction/renovation work, stopping for a moment to show off what would soon be a penthouse, on 28, with sweeping lakefront views.

And, perhaps more sentimentally, D'Angelo paused on 30, the final enormous floor before the structure narrows into a windowless ziggurat (or terraced pyramid), which serves as a sort of pedestal for the beehive light.

"This was my father's office," said D'Angelo, "We used to come up and have parties in here."

The cracked ruins of the marble floor tiles his mother installed remain, but the low ceiling has been ripped out to reveal the ziggurat's innards: its tile arch construction and the distinct pyramidal shape.

He then made his way into a sort of makeshift treehouse that rises through the center of the ziggurat, climbing a winding metal staircase built for maintenance staff, who, back in the old days, would have been the only people up here, and who certainly would have stopped, as D'Angelo did, to check out the red pleated-metal shed occupying an otherwise empty landing.

"We're in the mechanical space," said D'Angelo. He shined a light inside, on a giant antique Seth Thomas clock contraption that once operated the carillon bells.

"It was a pulley system, connected to the bells," he said. "We actually have one of the original clappers in the building. The pulleys are disconnected. Now it's all computerized technology." (When D'Angelo's father, Dino, bought the building, the bells were "dormant," but he put them to work again for Pope John Paul II's visit to Chicago in 1979.)

Another twisting, narrower flight of stairs led to a low, narrow room with low, narrow windows.

"This is the so-called observatory. ... I don't know if it was like the Skydeck at Sears Tower," D'Angelo said. "We have cartoons that show people talk about being in the Straus Building Observatory."

A better view

According to Cultural Historian for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Tim Samuelson, historical documents indicate that the 30th floor served as the Straus Tower Observatory, but on this tiny floor, if you stick your head out any of the windows, you can get a very good close-up of one of the four stone bison, which you can't really discern from the street.

"The bison are there to represent the Straus family's interest in the continental U.S.," said D'Angelo, referring to the original owners of the building, who lost it during the 1929 stock market crash. "The pyramid is acknowledging the Egyptians, and the beehive represents the industriousness of the bees."

"Now, if you're really courageous -- and, again, I haven't done it since I was 12 -- you can walk up into the bells which are up, up, up," he said, gesturing toward a metal ladder whose small hatch revealed not just a partial view of the bells but a second, vertiginous view through a second hatch into the interior of the light.

Maybe it was the influence of the bees, maybe it was the steadfastness of the bison, and it may have been the thin air up there, but the light definitely calls to you, even if you're afraid of heights.

So we made our way up, past the enormous bells, which seem to hang in a delicate arrangement despite their mass (they range from 1,500 pounds to 3 1/2 tons), and up the second precariously placed metal ladder into the light.

It turns out that going into the beehive light -- which is reminiscent of a small Victorian orangery (but with a blue glass box containing six 1,000-watt bulbs) -- is like being in the eye of a lighthouse: You see everything more clearly from here.

Sweeping views

In fact, the light offers such an unusual panoramic perspective, with the sunshine streaming in through glass panels, that it makes you recognize the city all over again.

The ridiculously sweeping views -- of the lake and the shoreline to the south (you feel like you're hovering above Buckingham Fountain and the boats rather than seeing them from afar), into the courtyard of the Art Institute, up Michigan Avenue, past the Wrigley Building to the John Hancock, and westward to the Sears Tower, and onward.

It's like having your life in Chicago flash before your eyes, without the near-death experience.

And to get back down to earth, all you have to worry about is those ladders.

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ernunn@tribune.com

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