Awesome New Observation Deck in Chicago’s Hancock Tower a Reminder That Boston Got Screwed Out of its Best Views

From 1977: Observers are silhouetted from the 60th floor of the John Hancock observatory as they looked towards Cambridge and MIT.
From 1977: Observers are silhouetted from the 60th floor of the John Hancock observatory as they looked towards Cambridge and MIT. –Stan Grossfield/The Boston Globe

File this under the header “This is why we can’t have nice things.’’

Chicago’s Hancock Tower is not the tallest building in the city, but locals swear it gives better views of the Second City than the taller Willis (née Sears) Tower. And the tower’s observation deck just got a whole lot cooler thanks to new mechanically tilting windows. Videos of the new feature have been all over the web this past week.

Remember when Boston had an awesome observation deck in its own Hancock Tower? That’s never coming back, thanks to corporate greed and the (allegedly) shoddy filing system of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.


The Hancock Tower’s observation deck was closed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Lots of tall buildings across the country did the same with their observation decks. But Boston’s Hancock Tower was one of a handful that decided to keep the deck closed.

Why? John Hancock never gave a reason beyond post-9/11 security, but they didn’t waste much time turning the former public amenity into new office space. Pressed by The Boston Globe in 2005, all they’d say is the deck was closed forever. During the 2003 sale of the tower to Beacon Capital, Hancock went so far as to mandate the closure be kept in place by the new owners.

In 2003, Beacon Capital Partners LLC bought the Hancock tower. John Hancock Insurance and Financial Services, now part of Manulife Financial Corp., remains a major tenant, but one of the stipulations of the building's sale was that the observatory would not be reopened.

Hancock Insurance officials bluntly have said the observation deck would be converted to office space.

''It is closed permanently," Hancock spokesman Steve Burgay said in March 2004.

Then there’s the mythical aspect of the story: According to legend, Boston had a written agreement with the Hancock’s original owners making the observation deck a public amenity. Alas, the story goes, Boston lost the paperwork, and therefore can’t force the current owners to re-open the deck. From that same 2005 Globe article:

The city, however, has been unable to find evidence of the agreement in its archives. Susan Elsbree, the spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said that BRA staff members have combed through records, searching for a written agreement, but have not found it.

''We believe it was part of the original agreement, but we have never been able to find it on paper," Elsbree said. ''We have always contended that the observatory should be open to the public. It was always intended as a public space and frankly a tourist attraction."

Everyone just knows it exists, but no one can seem to find the bleeping piece of paper that proves it. And without that paperwork, the agreement is just an urban legend.

By 2009, even Mayor Tom Menino referred to the deck agreement as a “rumor’’ during an interview with CBS Boston.

"That's a rumor that's been out there 15 years, I haven't seen the document, and somebody, if they have the document, let me see it," said Boston Mayor Tom Menino.

So either the building owners are reneging on an agreement, and shame on Boston for losing the proof of that deal, or they’re not, and shame on John Hancock and the subsequent building owners for using 9/11 as an excuse to kick school kids to the curb to earn a couple extra bucks.

Thankfully, you can always get a similar—if slightly lower—view from the Prudential Tower. As Chicago’s Hancock building proves, you don’t have to be the tallest building in a city to offer the public something wonderful.

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