Life at the Top--the 103rd Floor of Sears Tower

Times Staff Writer

For almost 10 years Barry Edwards has been reporting the Windy City’s traffic conditions twice a day from the 103rd floor of Sears Tower, the world’s tallest building.

Edwards, 43, who does early morning and late-afternoon traffic reports for radio station WBBM, occupies a small broadcast studio on the north side of the Sears Tower Skydeck. From a studio on the south side, Bonnie Deshong, 36, delivers traffic reports for radio station WGCI.

On the windiest days of the year, Edwards said, “the top of the building sways as much as six inches, the microphone swings back and forth and sometimes I get dizzy and a queasy stomach from that.”

The top floor, seven stories above them, is 1,454 feet above the street. Machinery and equipment for the building’s massive mechanical systems occupy the floors between them and the roof.


Sears Tower, with 110 stories, is 104 feet taller than the World Trade Center on Manhattan Island, at 1,350 feet, the second-tallest building in the world. The Empire State Building is 1,250 feet high. And with 4.5 million square feet, an area comparable to 16 city blocks, Sears Tower has more office space than in any other building in the United States, except for the Pentagon.

Last year more than 1.2 million people visited the Skydeck Observatory where a series of displays and recorded messages describes the local landmarks below. (The Skydeck is open daily from 9 a.m. to midnight.)

Deshong and Edwards base their reports on computer readouts provided by the Illinois Department of Transportation, which uses sensors to gauge congestion, travel time and traffic flow.

“Barry and I often step outside our studio to the huge windows on the Skydeck and use binoculars or a telescope to get a close-up view of tie-ups and gridlock developments on expressways and toll ways,” said Deshong, who has been broadcasting WGCI’s traffic reports for three years.


The two reporters provide information about city and suburban expressways and toll ways, including the Kennedy, Tri-State, Stevenson, Dan Ryan, Northwest, Edens, Eisenhower, Calumet, Kingery, Skyway, East-West and Lake Shore Drive.

The tower is headquarters for the world’s largest retailer, Sears, Roebuck & Co., which has 817 stores in the United States, Canada and Mexico. The company occupies 60% of the building; 6,500 of the 13,000 people who work in the skyscraper are Sears employees.

Each weekday an estimated 25,000 people go in and out of the building. There are 103 elevators, including 16 double-decked shuttles that carry passengers to three “skylobbies” where they can catch elevators to their destinations.

“Surprisingly there is no crunch,” said Edwin N. McCormick, director of a security and fire safety force of 73 officers. “People work staggered hours, yet, with all the elevators it is possible to get everybody in and out of the building in a matter of a few minutes.”

McCormick said the building has a sprinkler system throughout, smoke detectors of all kinds and fire-resistant furniture and wastebaskets.

“If a match or lighted cigarette is dropped in a wastebasket, the wastebasket collapses immediately and snuffs out the fire,” he said. “There are four major stairwells that can vent out the smoke. We are, of course, very fire-conscious.”

International financiers, blue chip investment houses, law firms and several companies also have offices in the building, which has 30 shops and 7 restaurants.

It took three years to build the steel, glass, aluminum and concrete structure; as many as 1,600 construction workers were on the job at one time.


Six automatic window-washing machines are used to clean more than 16,000 bronze-tinted, quarter-inch-thick windows that do not open. A few have blown out during heavy winds.

The second-highest offices are those of the law firm Cohen-Wulfstat-Semer-Leff & Rosenberg, which occupy the entire 99th floor.

“We were among the first commercial tenants in the building 15 years ago,” noted Allan Wulfstat, 49. We worked ourselves up, starting on the 45th floor, then the 86th floor and two years ago, the highest you can go, the 99th floor. We are here on a five-year lease, five-year option.”

Wulfstat and his 14 partners--corporate, business and tax attorneys--call themselves the “highest lawyers in the land.”

“Now, that doesn’t mean the most expensive,” he said, laughing.

The firm was named winner of this year’s American Bar Assn. Journal’s 4th annual law office design contest.

“As you can see, the view from up here is incredible,” Wulfstat said, looking down on Soldier’s Field, Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain and the jets landing below on Meigs Field. “Our clients love to come up here.”

He spoke of the Goodyear and Fuji blimps that fly by, and of being above the clouds when it is raining below.


“There is this feeling of openness,” he concluded. “The sunrises, sunsets, the lights in the city at night are unbelievable. Sometimes it seems we can see forever. . . .”