Sunday, June 20, 2010

Item From the Past: Diamond in the Sky

It was a cool day in late June [1988]. There were no clouds or haze in the air and a smooth little wind was coming off Lake Michigan. A perfect day for climbing around the outside of a glass skyscraper about 40 floors above Michigan Avenue.

I haven’t taken up scaling the outsides of tall buildings for sport. But recently I did find myself atop the Associates Center [now the Smurfit-Stone Building, 150 N. Michigan Ave.], climbing around its glassy, diamond-shaped roof.

It started as a publicity gimmick for the building. The building’s management sent out an invitation to print journalists, TV crews and other ne’er-do-wells to the top of the building for lunch and a look at the “light changing process.”

That is, we were invited to see replacement of some of the white light bulbs on the roof with red and blue ones. The bulbs line the diamond shape of the roof, adding a glowing rhombus to the luminous texture of Chicago’s nighttime skyline. Red, white and blue are for the Fourth of July; at Christmas, the lights are green and red; and for Valentine’s, just red.

This is no small job. There are 252 bulbs up there, laid out over a surface of an eighth of a square mile, which just happens to be sloping at a 51-degree angle.

To reach the roof, you ride the freight elevator. At the 42nd floor, a staircase leads up to a space located under the top of the diamond-shaped glass roof. The place is a forest of pipes and machines with a floor covered by a layer of small rocks, bathed in sunlight from above. This is one of the mechanical hubs, maybe even the heart, of the building’s HVAC system.

So far, nothing too extraordinary, except maybe for the exquisite spider webs spanning a few long-undisturbed nooks among the machinery (it’s remarkable where living creatures can live). Anyway, from there a short climb up a metal ladder led to a small door that opened onto the roof.

Sound dangerous? From the ground, the roof of the Associates Center looks like a smooth, steep plane. It is, and of that were all, you’d tumble to earth like a pill bug rolling off a leaf.

But the roof also sports outdoor stairs running the length of it diamond-shaped rim, parallel to the rows of light bulbs. The stairs are recessed several feet so that it would take a good jump to get out onto the glass slope of the roof, if that were your intention. Here are also handrails that you (that is, I) grip tightly at first.

Once on the stairs, you first notice the building itself, angling down and down and down, and the other way, arching up into the sky. Then the view begins to sink in.

You’re looking southeast across the entire sweep of Grant Park, Chicago Harbor and the line of the lake curling south into Indiana. On a clear day, and this was a very clear day, you can see smokestacks in Michigan.

But it’s more than a nice vista. You get that at the Sears Tower or John Hancock, but there you’re behind glass. Here the vista is raw, unpackaged and not sold at $3.50 a pop.

I talked to the chief engineer of the building, who is in charge of the great light bulb switch. In the summer, he says, it isn’t too tough to change the bulbs. In takes him and an assistant a day. In winter, however, it’s a different story.

Then icy winds and nasty cold make the job miserable. Ice on the stairs makes it treacherous too – the engineer and his assistant sometimes use ropes to stabilize themselves, as if they were mountain climbing.

Even on a warm day, I was unnerved at the thought of trudging around on a tilted ice sheet 40 stories up. The Associates Center roof is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to work there.

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