The difficulty of changing corporate names on significant urban buildings

The Hancock may soon officially be no more in Chicago but that does not mean the name will disappear from use, including by architecture critics like Blair Kamin:

But names still matter. “Willis Tower” has never felt right. It’s foreign — literally. At the height of the Great Recession, with Sears Tower’s owners desperate to lure tenants, a British reinsurance company swept in and cut an office lease deal that gave it naming rights. Lots of people, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, would rather that the modernist high-rise continue to be called Sears…

The eclectic Wrigley Building, thank goodness, is still the Wrigley Building, even though its namesake company no longer occupies it. The building’s whiteness was meant to symbolize the freshness of chewing gum. The architecture and the name were part of a single, organic package, just as they were in New York’s Art Deco Chrysler Building, where eagle gargoyles adorned the building like Chrysler hood ornaments…

But as I’ve written in recent weeks, pondering the Chicago Tribune’s impending move from Tribune Tower to the old Prudential Building (now One Prudential Plaza), buildings are commodities subject to the dictates of the marketplace; expecting them to stay frozen in time is unrealistic. The same goes for their names.

That’s why Boston’s John Hancock Tower, a 62-story glass-sheathed high-rise that is as elegant as Chicago’s Hancock is brawny, became known in 2015 by its street address — 200 Clarendon. When the lease of the John Hancock company expired, the tower’s owner no longer was allowed to use the Hancock name. The new name hasn’t exactly caught on with the locals.

Three things strike me here:

  1. Iconic structures are more likely to retain their original names even when later changes dictate the official name is something else. What makes those buildings iconic can differ: it may have been occupied by an important local company or it may have unique architectural features. The buildings cited above in Chicago have both things going for them.
  2. It is a little strange for locals to cling so strongly to corporate identities in the names of buildings. Would it be better to instead name major structures after something other than the company behind it? An address may be rather bland but perhaps the name could be connected to the particular architecture and design or tied to a famous figure, moment in history, or feature of the location.
  3. Perhaps the deeper issue is connecting buildings to history. If naming rights are simply up for grabs, prominent locations can change their identity regularly. Not only might this be disorienting to locals, it can remove the structure from its creation and its place within a city. The issue may not be naming rights but rather making sure that buildings are defined by locals rather than by out-of-towners or global interest.

I suspect residents of Chicago will be calling the structure the Hancock for years to come.

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