CHICAGO — For Chicagoans it may be the architectural equivalent of having to watch Michael Jordan finish his career in a Washington Wizards uniform: The Sears Tower is turning into something called the Willis Tower.
That's right, the tallest building in the United States is getting a new name later this year, building management said Thursday.
"It just doesn't work," said Robin O'Sullivan, a tourist from Cork, Ireland, as he walked into the Sears Tower's Skydeck entrance on Thursday. "It's known worldwide. Everyone in Ireland knows it's the Sears Tower."
It's all part of a deal with the London-based Willis Group Holdings. Along with moving 500 employees into 140,000 square feet on multiple floors of the 110-story building this summer, the Willis Group gets the naming rights as part of its lease agreement with the real estate investment group that owns Sears Tower.
The name change isn't the first in recent years for Chicago. In 2006, the city's State Street shopping district saw Marshall Field's department store become Macy's and in 2003 the White Sox started playing baseball at U.S. Cellular Field instead of Comiskey Park.
"We certainly appreciate and understand the sentimental attraction to the Sears Tower name, and it's certainly a Chicago icon," said Will Thoretz, a spokesman in New York for Willis Holdings Group. "Our move into Chicago is a good thing for the city. We're bringing hundreds of jobs into the city."
The company requested the change and isn't paying extra for naming rights to the tower, Thoretz said.
The insurance broker will occupy more than 140,000 square feet at $14.50 a square foot. Willis is moving six local offices into the building. The move is expected to be completed by late summer.
The question, though, is if people will popularly refer to the building as anything other than the Sears Tower, said Tim Samuelson, the city of Chicago's cultural historian.
"I have a feeling that the name 'Sears' is going to be hard to lose," Samuelson said. "Not necessarily that anyone is actively fighting it. It's just that people are so used to that building with that distinctive presence being called the Sears Tower."
Even the building's owners are aware of the challenge that lies ahead.
"Like any change, it may take some time for Chicagoans to get used to this, but in the end, this is a great thing for the building, and for the city of Chicago," said Mike Kazmierczak, senior vice president for U.S. Equities Realty.
Joan Fredricks, 64, brought her granddaughters to the Sears Tower on Thursday as the family made their way to Washington D.C. from their home in Mason City, Iowa. She said it was suggested they go visit the Sears Tower.
"If they said, 'You have to go to the Willis Tower, we would have said, `What's that?'" Fredricks said, crinkling her face. "That's not what I've known it as after all these years."
Sears Tower first opened in 1973, designed by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill _ the same firm that designed the John Hancock Tower on the city's North Side. Sears Roebuck and Co. was the building's original tenant before the department store moved its headquarters to the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates in 1992. A real estate investment group formed in 2004 now owns the 1,451-foot skyscraper.
"We're saddened," Kim Freely, a spokeswoman for Sears Holdings Corp., said Thursday. "We believe that Chicagoans will continue to refer to the building as Sears Tower."
Dennis Pacyga, a history professor at Columbia College in Chicago, said he sees the Sears Tower name change as Chicago growing to fit the new global economy.
"Chicago is shifting and changing and taking a bigger standing in the world economy," he said. "This would be part of that adjustment."
The Sears Tower name will likely stick because that's what the building was called when it reigned as the tallest building in the world, Samuelson said.
"People driving into Chicago from far away, out in cornfields," he said. "The first sight of this hazy image of this stepped building, you look and it's the Sears Tower. It's the only thing you see. You call it out."
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Associated Press Writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.