DOWNTOWN — A large chunk of aluminum cladding fell off the Hancock building earlier this week, frightening neighbors.
The piece of cladding fell about 3 p.m. Wednesday, landing atop a planter on the building’s south side off Chestnut Street. No one was injured — but the incident did scare people who live near or were passing by 875 N. Michigan Ave., one of the Chicago’s tallest buildings.
“It terrified me,” said Alex Fuller Cleveland, a resident of Seneca Apartments, 200 E. Chestnut St. She was working from home when, through her window, she saw the piece fall. “I was really worried if it might have hit a person.”
Representatives of the Hearn Company, owners and operators of the building formerly known as the John Hancock Center, and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said a piece that covers part of the building’s X-bracing came off due to high winds. The National Weather Service had warned of strong winds that day.
Javonte Love, a retail worker at the American Girl Place Chicago across the street from the center, said the fall caused a commotion, with people crowding around to see what had happened.
“I saw the aftermath: people running over there and panicking,” Love said. “It was just a lot of craziness going on.”
Fuller Cleveland said the piece came off the second-to-lowest X-bracing on the Hancock and ricocheted off a lower window. She went down, took a picture of the metal sheet on the planter and sent it to Hopkins’ office and posted it on Facebook.
Hopkins responded to Fuller Cleveland within an hour and said workers with Hearn went up to do initial inspections of the damage Thursday.
Hopkins said he thinks the Hancock “is safe” and the aluminum piece coming off was a “freak incident.”
“This is the first time anyone can ever recall a piece of this aluminum cladding material coming off the building. It simply hasn’t happened,” Hopkins said. “We don’t think this is an indication of a trend that pieces are suddenly going to start falling off the building. We have no reason to believe that.”
On Thursday, the aluminum piece had been removed from the street. There was yellow tape and “Caution Falling Ice” signs around where it had landed. Workers at the building said they couldn’t comment.
Hearn representatives would not answer specific questions but provided a statement saying the fall was an “isolated incident.”
“Our engineers have inspected the adjacent panels and have indicated they are secure,” spokesperson Tom Coffey said in the statement. “A more detailed inspection of the façade will take place as soon as weather conditions permit.”
Hopkins said inspectors must now check all the X-bracings to ensure “it is a one-off.”
But the current weather means they can’t do detailed inspections immediately, Hopkins said. The city’s facing potentially hazardous cold and wind until Saturday.
“The extreme temperatures limit the amount of time that the inspectors can be on the swing-stage platform,” Hopkins said. “And it’s pretty damn windy up there. It’s not safe for them.”
Checking if a fallen piece is a sign of any larger issue is standard practice, Hopkins said. For example, the Standard Oil Building, now called the Aon Center, was originally covered in marble slabs, some of which began to deteriorate in what officials hoped were isolated incidents. Further inspection showed the marble slabs were problematic — they weren’t suited for Chicago weather — and the whole building had to be stripped and recovered in granite in 1990.
“Something like that, you can never rule it out. But this is a different situation,” Hopkins said. “These pieces of aluminum are very lightweight compared to the heavy marble materials that were used on the Standard Oil Building.”
Hopkins said the Hancock is “a building that’s had its share of incidents.” In 2002, wind gusts tore off a piece of scaffolding that fell, killing three people and crushing several cars.
“We’re very fortunate no one was hurt in this incident,” Hopkins said. “But it’s always a good idea for people to be careful as they’re walking near tall buildings.”
Fuller Cleveland plans to walk across the street from the Hancock for now on.
“I do not want to be in the line of fire if it happens again,” she said. “I was confident about the building before, but not now.”
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