I recently watched a twentysomething man in a Cubs jersey pose for a picture at the northeast corner of Upper Wacker Drive and Wabash. He instructed his companion with the camera to make sure she framed the Trump International Hotel & Tower just so in the background as he, wearing a smirk, flipped the bird in the direction of the skyscraper. Shortly thereafter, a young couple who’d been waiting in the wings staged the same scene for a selfie.
Back in 2014, Donald Trump told Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin that the Trump Tower marquee—featuring our now president’s last name spelled out on the river-facing side of the building in 20-foot-tall block letters—would eventually become Chicago’s version of Los Angeles’s Hollywood sign. And he’s sort of right: Trump’s sign truly has evolved into an instantly recognizable icon tourists line up to be photographed with. But while the LA landmark conjures dreams of Tinseltown fame and fortune, Trump Tower’s marquee evokes nightmares about the president’s hateful reign. For those of us living in the city that Trump constantly bashes (“What the hell is going on in Chicago?”), his tower now looms like a gleaming, 98-story middle finger aimed at the 86 percent of Chicago voters who voted for anyone but Trump in 2016. And we’re all too eager to literally scream “Fuck you!” in return and post about the experience on Instagram.
Trump Tower once seemed more innocuous, just another billionaire’s phallic monument to himself. When Trump first announced plans to build on the former site of the Sun-Times building in mid-2001, he made noise about it taking away the title of world’s tallest building from what was then still called Sears Tower. “Don’t be totally surprised,” he told the New York Times. “It’ll be a great building, the world’s tallest or not.” But 9/11 spooked him, and he shrunk it down to a slightly more modest size. When it was completed in late 2008, the tower reached a height of 1,388 feet, making it the third tallest in the U.S. and second in Chicago, after Willis Tower. Most Chicagoans shrugged; a decade ago, of course, Trump was most famous for terrorizing contestants on The Apprentice. But by the time his 2,800-square-foot vanity plate was hung on the 16th floor of the tower in 2014, Trump’s name had become more poisonous due to his birtherism conspiracy theory campaign against then-President Obama. It’s only gotten worse—much, much worse—since then.
I used to feel queasy about the idea of actually going inside the place. I imagined Trump Tower as a version of Barad-dûr, Sauron’s stronghold in Lord of the Rings. But as it turns out, the place is much more banal—more Mar-a-Lago than Mordor. The tower’s sleek exterior is a handsome addition to the skyline if you’re viewing it from a distance and can’t make out the tacky nameplate. The interiors are posh, but not in an over-the-top gilded-everything sort of way. Minus the velvet Trump-branded bag that the daily edition of the fake-news newspaper comes delivered in to guests, there are no Vegas-style flourishes—no golden statues of Trump posed like Michelangelo’s David or anything. Just chandeliers hanging in sparse lobbies and middle-aged business travelers sipping $17 cocktails in the sleek hotel bar.
I may have been viewing the building through the wrong lens of popular culture. It’s also a well-worn trope for filmmakers to house an evil mastermind in a glittering slice of glass-and-steel modernist architecture. From Bond villains to corporate crooks like Gordon Gekko, cinema’s bad hombres keep elegant lairs austere enough to match their indifference toward humanity. So too it seems for our real-life movie-villain president. He plunged his skyscraper through the heart of Chicago, and here we are left to shout helplessly into its mirrored void. v