Poblocki Signs Redefines Chicago Skyline With Trump Tower Signage

Twenty-ft.-tall letter make statement on Michigan Ave.
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Doing business in a behemoth city like Chicago resembles its weather; it isn’t for the faint of heart. Although the days of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine – and its accompanying systems of patronage, nepotism and cronyism – are long past, Chicago still presents a challenging commercial landscape.
Poblocki Signs (West Allis, WI) has ample experience working on high-profile, urban sign programs; its portfolio includes the Mayo Clinic’s Jacksonville, FL facility; Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum and Miller Park, home of MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers; and Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower), another Chicago landmark.
However, it’s likely none of these signs received the same public scrutiny as the exterior sign Poblocki built and installed for Trump Tower, which stands proudly in the Riverwalk District along Michigan Ave., one of Chicago’s most prominent thoroughfares. Chicago reveres its architecture, particularly in this tony neighborhood that’s a popular destination for residents and tourists alike.
The sign stirred some controversy between billionaire icon Donald Trump and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. However, beneath the rhetoric, and the white-hot glare of media exposure, resides the story of the perseverance and attention to detail Poblocki maintained to execute a project worthy
of a prime location along Chicago’s most popular street this side of West Addison (home of venerable Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ ballpark). Chuck Amundsen, Poblocki’s VP of Strategic Accounts, whose two stints with the company have totaled approximately 20 years, met with Mr. Trump and shepherded the project through to completion.
Beginnings
Poblocki’s relationship began with The Trump Organization and Lend-Lease Chicago, which managed the project on Trump’s behalf, with the shop’s fabrication of the Tower’s approximately 3,000 interior signs – room-ID numerals, wayfinding and ADA-compliant environmental graphics
– and 20, curved-stainless-steel, exterior-wayfinding signs. Amund-sen noted the client was “pleased with the quality of workmanship and professionalism”, and Poblocki was invited to provide engineering schematics and budgetary parameters for the large, exterior-wall display. Among a group of Trump’s selected bidders, Poblocki prevailed.
Amundsen noted the original design intent, which Catt Lyon Design (Cincinnati) completed when the Trump Tower was under construction, was delivered approximately 10 years before the project began. However, the rendering specified a 990-sq.-ft. sign, which, by the standards of the neighboring skyscrapers, was understated. At that time, The Trump Organization asked Poblocki to provide budget parameters for a conventionally fabricated set of channel letters with painted returns. The shop fulfilled the request, but the project proceeded no further until 2011, when Lend-Lease Chicago requested to-scale renderings that would maximize the sign’s size within the limits of Chicago’s city code.
At that time, the sign code applicable to Michigan Ave. permitted signs up to 25 ft. tall. Poblocki provided a modified rendering to city officials that demonstrated the 20-ft.-tall letters would fit appropriately within the available, designated space. The permitting process lasted one year
from when the project was awarded until work began – like most large cities, Chicago employs a comprehensive permitting process. Amundsen said a sign company can’t apply for a permit until it’s provided 100% stamped drawings to the permit office.
Many stakeholders have say-so: approval for such high-profile Chicago projects requires a thumbs-up from Chicago’s aldermen and special-district administrators, a City Council review, the city’s building and electrical departments, and two reviews from the Zoning Board. Plus, Chicago imposes a wintertime moratorium on sign work within certain districts (sensible, given the Windy City’s often-brutal conditions that time of year).
Meeting Mr. Trump
Amundsen learned Donald Trump personally handles negotiations for any purchases larger than $500,000; this project’s pricetag reached low seven figures. To complete the deal, Amundsen was instructed to be at his desk between 12:00 and 12:20 p.m. on a specific day. The conversation with Trump could include no cell phones, no speakerphones and no nicknames. Accompanied by a spreadsheet with a range of price points and profit margins, Amundsen sat down ready to receive Trump’s call.
“I was prepared, but nervous,” Amundsen said. “He was disarmingly cordial, and asked quite a few questions that surprised me. He asked me if I knew what oil-canning was, and its effect on high-polished finishes. When I explained that this condition arose when materials too thin for the job created a mottled, wavy appearance on a signface, he was satisfied.”
He continued, “He then asked about pillowing on large-surface-area signs. I explained that sections seamed to not allow expansion and contraction created raised sections. These were legitimate questions to raise for this method of fabrication, and I was impressed that he asked. We continued with amenable, unrelated conversation interspersed with negotiation. He gradually went up, and I gradually went down. Finally, he said, ‘I’m a busy man; you’re a busy man. How about we split the difference and call it a day?’ I agreed, and we completed the deal.”
Before they hung up, Amundsen said Mr. Trump concluded with a memorable remark: “He said, ‘Chuck, if I like my sign when it’s completed, I’ll call you up and let you know about it. But, if I don’t like my sign, I’m going to call you up and let you know about it.’”
Design and estimating
Poblocki completed the project design using a combination of Adobe Acrobat to develop the initial schematic; AutoCAD® drafting software, which helped the design and fabrication teams establish depth and scale; RISA 3-D, which, according to Wade Carter, Poblocki’s professional engineer, is useful for sign production because it completes a structural analysis, and compares project-design proposals to what’s code-compliant for each structural component; and Microsoft Word and Excel to initially draft the contents.
Key components specified within the design process included a galvanized-steel, skeleton frame; perimeter backsplashes on the letters; structural-steel tubing, and perimeter, LED cove lighting. A stainless-steel-mesh screen also plays an important role; it prevents small spiders from penetrating the display. Every spring, a spider migration – this phenomenon reportedly extends beyond Chicago – floats up to 90 stories above grade in urban environments, with the potential to sabotage lighting and electrical systems.
Amundsen said, “Because of the high degree of reflectivity in the sign’s #8 mirror finish, Poblocki engineered the construction to allow in-line seams across the display’s entire length. This system, which extends from character to character, creates a special overlap with a ¼-in., exposed, expansion gap. However, given the sign’s above-grade height, it’s practically invisible. Initially, the shop was concerned this finish might create an unsafe level of glare for motorists and residents, but our fabrication of a temporary mock-up allayed this concern.”
Amundsen said the job’s estimating requirements seemed daunting: “Everything must be considered before engineering takes place. Every section had to be addressed to verify it could be accommodated by the freight elevator’s limitations, rooftop access, the loading-dock schedule, complying with street permits, coordinating with other trades onsite and other factors. We had to consider all possibilities and ask many questions.”
Fabrication
The contract signed by The Trump Organization disallowed change orders. This meant Poblocki’s estimating department had to anticipate all potential problems with the components. Their only point of reference was a concept rendering. The sign’s internal skeleton required exacting precision; the attachment points’ alignment with the mast-arm projections conformed within a ¼-in. tolerance. All told, the sign encompasses seven material layers.
The sign Poblocki ultimately fabricated spans 2,891 sq. ft. It eclipses what had been Chicago’s largest sign, the one that adorns One Prudential Plaza (2,500 sq. ft.), as well as other iconic signs, such as those that identify the Congress Hotel (1,836 sq. ft.), the Chicago Sun-Times (1,450 sq. ft.) and UBS (1,140 sq. ft.). Obviously, such a behemoth required an exhaustive fabrication plan.
The #8, polished-mirror finish, stainless steel, from 316 alloy, is a marine-grade material that prevents corrosion caused by welding – and, of course, Chicago weather. The shop fabricated the returns and letter backs from 0.125-in.-thick aluminum. Interior and exterior, stainless-steel supports fortify the signs.
Due to the hoist’s support capacity, each part could weigh only 1,500 lbs. With the sign’s total weight encompassing 23,700 lbs., Poblocki broke down each letter’s face and support panel into several sections. To ensure greater precision and minimize welding stress with the stainless-steel letters, they were broken down into smaller sections than the backers – the “M”, which contains the thinnest strokes, required 13 sections. To secure the letters to the metal grating beneath, Poblocki specified stainless-steel screws with Titan HD screw anchors.
To illuminate the sign above the Chicago River amid Chicago’s brilliant nighttime cityscape, Poblocki implemented approximately 1,220 linear ft. of 7,100K, white GE Tetra MiniMax modules, which were installed on aluminum baffles. This Kelvin temperature represents standard illumination for Poblocki projects, Amundsen said. Although LEDs provide easier installation by degrees of magnitude versus neon or fluorescent tubes, properly saturating the letters is important to maintain balanced illumination.
Installation
Noise complaints presented an unexpected problem. This isn’t a common problem, Amundsen said, but it’s an understandable occupational hazard when working in a large building with numerous in-house tenants. When this happened, Poblocki pulled out of this work area, and instead focused on a project facet that would generate a lower decibel level, such as assembly. Because the shop didn’t want to transport excessively large pieces to the jobsite, or exceed the stipulated part-weight limit, Poblocki established an onsite assembly area.
The sign penetrates the louver system behind the letters at 42 points. Poblocki X-rayed the surface behind the louvers to ensure core-drilling into the façade wouldn’t hit any rebar beneath. The shop also had to coordinate with Trump Tower management to ensure the work wouldn’t disrupt occupants of rooms near the worksite.
According to Mark Eesley, Poblocki’s installation manager, onsite equipment included a spider crane, 8-in.-diameter concrete- and steel-coring equipment, a MIG welder and torch setup. Reassembly of louver systems, insulation and waterproofing was often required. Window removals and equipment setups were needed in every affected conference room, and Poblocki performed extensive hammer drilling and setting anchors for all support beams and rails for both swing stages, and hoist and safety equipment.
Road-closure permits were only required for transportation and unloading of the components – with other access points available, Poblocki’s work didn’t impact local traffic. Installers used onsite window-washing equipment to remove the windows, and install the swing stage and hoisting equip-
ment, and access the building façade. All materials were lifted into place with bolted-down, temporary lifting equipment, which was installed into the conference room two stories above the display area.
“The Trump Tower’s management team inspected our work every day as we were finishing,” Amundsen said. “Mr. Trump maintained a direct line of contact with the Tower’s facilities director, and kept abreast of daily progress, as well as the next day’s scope of work.”
Public feedback
As with many high-profile projects, the court of public opinion provided some pushback. Sometimes, it’s human nature to oppose something unfamiliar. Amundsen said, “Initially, there were more negative comments about the project than positive.”
However, as the project unfolded before the eyes of pedestrians, motorists, Chicago River boat passengers and others, consensus turned in the sign’s favor. The Trump Tower’s signage received further support in opposition to Emanuel’s publicly declared opinion against the project. A few months later, the Chicago City Council passed regulations that forbade the installation of signs larger than 550 sq. ft.
Numerous articles, mostly supportive, were written about the sign by Chicago media outlets, around the blogosphere and beyond. However, the funniest take probably came from former The Daily Show host Jon Stewart on the June 17, 2014 broadcast of the show. Rather than my belaboring a summary, view it for yourself at http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/4rc83p/signfeud
For generations, Chicago’s leaders have maintained a vision of Chicago as the cultural and economic epicenter of Middle America, and allowed the city to embrace progress. Signs have a played a key role in defining its character. Whatever one might think about Mr. Trump, his lifestyle and his Presidential run, we should appreciate the importance he places on impactful signage for his properties. And, of course, kudos to Poblocki for masterfully executing such a high-profile project.