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Sears Tower Renamed: What's Really Lost?

Will anyone call it Big Willy?

This week, Willis Group Holdings, the London insurance brokers, announced it will lease three floors of America's tallest building to house 500 employees.

And oh yes — the name of Sears Tower will be changed to Willis Tower.

I don't want to sentimentalize what is, after all, a name change from one company to another, a retailer to an insurance firm.

But it's hard not to see this name change as meaning something more in this current world economy.

For those of us who love cities, tall buildings are the mountains of our landscapes. Their names and places are the way we find our way around: walk past the Hancock until you see the Wrigley Building, right across from Trib Tower. Those names are also markers of local history. You wouldn't want to change them according to who buys the building, any more than you would change the name of Mount Ranier or Mount Whitney according to who gets elected governor.

Local reaction to renaming Sears Tower has ranged from adverse to murderous, though Mayor Richard M. Daley offered only a shrug of indifference and reminded reporters that Sears had moved its corporate headquarters to a suburb years ago anyway.

As Joseph Plumeri, chairman of the Willis Group, said, "The headline should be: A company has decided to invest money in Chicago, and if you miss that headline, you've missed the side of the building by a mile and a half."

The profile of Sears Tower has always reminded me of four mammoth pistons, at different heights, pounding into the sky — a gorgeous signature for a powerful city.

But the building's occupancy rate is down to 85 percent. After the attacks of Sept. 11, many people worried that iconic skyscrapers could become targets.

A man who is distraught about the name change wrote me a note this week that suggested, "Those who build it should get to name it."

And that made me reflect a bit on all the money that has been spent since the boom and bubbles that began in the 1990s by people who weren't building businesses, but buying them just to sell them off. Once, you had to build something — a skyscraper, a stadium — to put your name on it. Putting a name on a building may have been a sign of ego, but it also implied a commitment to a community; something that would last more than a generation or two. Now, buildings that are considered monuments put their names up for lease.

A feature in Friday's Chicago Tribune suggested that in retaliation, some Chicago developer might want to start buying London landmarks. They could rename Piccadilly Circus, "Pick-A-Daley-Circus."

The Tower of London? "Sears Tower of London."

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small