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When the Wind Blows (at Marina City)

(Photo: I wonder how much they swayed back then?)

[As I wrote these words overnight, I wouldn’t know someone was also taking their life at Marina City. According to the Chicago Tribune, here’s one unfortunate soul who apparently leapt off of East Tower–my tower (and from my own elevator tier, too)–early today. As always, unfortunate news arrives unexpectedly and in shocking measure here at the corncobs…]

Friends rarely believe me when I tell them about the grandmother on a rocking chair who lives in the walls at Marina City. At least, that’s who it sounds like inhabits the cast-in-place concrete of my high-rise corncob home every time a stiff wind blows through downtown Chicago.

It doesn’t take a tornadic gust, either. Any of the brisk lakefront winds that often pass across the Loop after sundown is enough to set Marina City’s 60-story twin condo towers in rhythmic, cacophonous motion.

I experienced my first unexpected skyscraper dance shortly after moving in four years ago. Having never lived in a high-rise before, I spent my first few days in Marina City gazing into water glasses and at my empty toilet bowl to see if I could detect evidence of movement–of course to no avail.

Then it rained and I almost wet myself in fright.

The howl of thunderstorm winds across a Marina City balcony is off-putting enough. They whistle through the metal railing like a pipe organ as they roar past the towers with the sound of a freight train. Every gust hitting the balconies is felt a split-second later as a sudden vibration in the floorplate.

And then the swaying begins. Civil engineers will tell you skyscrapers don’t really sway, they displace. What you feel isn’t the building being pushed away by the wind, it’s the building snapping back into place after the wind has done its job.

I doubt the civil engineers who built Marina City ever had to live in it. Otherwise, their story might be a bit different.

First you hear a short, muffled creak. If you’re anywhere near your computer, you might mistake it for the sound of your hard drive seeking data. Within moments, though, the muffled creak grows into a sustained to-and-fro groaning. A two-seconds-long-in-each-direction groaning.

A loud groaning. And I don’t mean 2 a.m. screaming crowd exiting the House of Blues down on the plaza level loud, either. I mean, the freakin’ building is yelling into your ear loud.

Now regular readers know I put up with a lot to remain in these beloved corncobs. From fires, floods, and water shut-offs, to condo-board controversies, management company misprints, and at least one (now-convicted) pimp dentist, for better or worse, life in Marina City is rarely uneventful. But how many people can say their apartment accidentally woke them up because it, er, moved?

Last night, as a particularly powerful late-evening wind passed over the towers, I put my Macbook on a shelf near the wall, fired up Garage Band, and hit the Record button. I ended up with a faithful representation of what I heard sitting on my couch five feet away.

When I played it back, the ominous groaning was so loud, I was glad the swaying is usually never apparent enough to be felt. But the fact that I could record it so easily made me realize just how much must be moving deep inside the superstructure. It could be concrete and reinforcing metal making all the racket, though I think the real culprit is the old-school, rigid metal lathe supporting the equally days-of-yester plaster walls.

Not that I’m comforted by that. No matter what’s making the noise, it’s still an entire, 550-foot skyscraper leaning hither and yon that’s actually causing it. But when you live in a building built on stilts, you try not to think of primal causes.

After four years, I’m at least used to the noise. No passing blizzard, tornadic front, or steep temperature drop seems right unless I can hear that grandmother in the walls rocking vigorously enough to divert my ADD-addled attention away from whatever task I’m trying to settle into.

Mind you, there’s no fear anymore. I don’t even get out of bed unless the creaking is at least as loud as the Portuguese danger cat, Camões, meowing about an impending hairball. Even then, it’s only to call a friend and put the phone up to the wall to try and prove the auditory urgency of the event.

Well if this doesn’t prove it, nothing will. Click through to hear last night’s recording of Marina City’s high-wind wall creaking.

And if you still don’t believe me, check the Weather Channel for the next storm front and invite yourself over for dinner. Don’t arrive empty handed.

I prefer a spicy, young red with hints of cherry and black pepper.

Categories: Best Of Chicago Carless Marina City Should I Move to Marina City? Weather

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

My Bio | My Conversion | My Family Reunion


24 replies

  1. Hi Mike,
    I appreciate your kind comments.
    Your apartment is on the 38 level, I should imagine that the top levels will be worse. Mass dampeners have evolved with time and I am no expert but in my opinion I feel that this will be the only solution for your building. Left alone the long term situation can only get worse. I would expect to see spalling or cracks appear in the structural concrete. Assuming that a recent Engineering analysis has been done on the building and the movement and/or vibration levels are deemed acceptable, that does not change the fact that in my opinion quality of life in the building at times is not acceptable.
    I recommend that the owners find an engineering company with great experience in retro installing of mass dampeners in high rise buildings. Modern mass dampening systems now use computers and hydraulic actuators. If the installation of a single dampener is not possible perhaps the installation of multiple dampeners can do the job.
    Un fortunatly the solution will be expensive.

  2. Don, for the first time in four years, I’m letting a sales pitch go live in my comment threads. Points to you for crafting a perfectly on-topic, related comment that segues perfectly into your product! (I’m impressed.)

    For the record, we do not have a mass dampener at Marina City. That technology was perfected later.

  3. Mike,
    I was wondering if your building is equiped with mass dampener system? Your recording sounds like one of the old wooden clipper ships at sea. Pretty scary. As a matter of interest Aluminum balcony railings also vibrate and make a humming sound ( check out recording on our web site) although creaking is absent from the railing noise. 3/4″ sq pickets on railings are known to generate noise. I know that there are buildings that have been retro fitted with mass dampeners and I wonder if anybody has had experience with there effectivness.

  4. I have a similar issue with a building in St. Paul but the sound is allot different and sounds more like an old rusty box spring mattress on windy days. The noise is unsettling and leads me to believe it’s poorly designed and constructed. This is not a place I want to live in for very long and I’m planing on moving out as soon as I can.

  5. I actually think it’s differential settling between the concrete core, which bears the minority of the weight of each tower, and the two concentric rings of columns, which bear most of the building weight.

    It seems to me only to be an East Tower issue. In this tower, the floor in the circular hallway surrounding the core is canted noticeably towards the outer walls, and the cant continues once you enter the apartment tiers (which sit between the concentric column rings). In other words, it isn’t that the tower is leaning in any direction, but that it is slightly sagging around the central core, from inside to outer walls.

    In west tower, I’ve never noticed the issue.

    The fridge issue is a definitely a level issue. If I tilt the fridge slightly up, the problem disappears.

  6. Mike –

    It would be highly unlikely that the tower is leaning so much so to be noticeable. The Floor pitch you may notice is probably the concrete finishing or toppings out of level and the fridge hinges might just be getting seized up. But if indeed the towers are leaning, to a point where people can notice it, you might have a great scoop on a big time story – Chicago Architectural Masterpiece in Peril? I dont know what your floor finishes are but if its hard surfaced try letting some marbles roll around on there own.

  7. The sway may be because of (or the cause of) Marina City having settled to much it’s out of plumb. I just discovered my 38th floor apartment angles downhill all the way from the front door (near the building core) to the balcony door–and the 350-foot drop beyond.

    I’m so not kidding. Walking from the front door to the balcony door feels like walking down a slight hill, and you can feel the climb from the balcony to the front door.

    That would explain why my refrigerator door mysteriously stopped closing on its own two years ago, and the creeping appearance of hairline paint cracks around the interior beams.

    Marines! We are LEAVING!

  8. Thank you, Matt. I must now, of course, stand beneath your tier and yell at the top of my lungs on Fridays to simulate living directly above the House of Blues. You know, to make myself feel better?

    Judging by your tier’s views on your Facebook page (thanks for the friending–wow, you work fast!), I think we can probably see one another’s balconies from the edge of each!

  9. I can attest to the noise not being as loud. I’m in the west tower facing east and the worst I get is the lady above me who sounds like she’s training for a marathon in her heels without a treadmill.
    Great site/writing…I do believe I have found my new guilty pleasure Mike.

  10. Sitting in 474 N Lake Shore Drive during a windy storm, we just played your recording and listened as our buildings talked to each other; concrete and rebar in stereo. Nothing like the quirks of high rise living.

  11. Thanks for reading, and too funny! I’m glad I’m not alone in this. Depending on the direction your unit faces, some people in Marina City don’t ever hear it. I face west. Whenever there’s a north or south wind, I get the creaking. Especially a wind from the south. It was a south wind the night of the recording.

    A couple of years ago I was here one afternoon as a strong, very brief summer front pushed up through the Loop. They later said the gust front was 50 miles an hour or so. When it hit, the building began swaying within seconds, and the creaking was louder and faster than I ever heard it before. After the front passed, it took several minutes for the building to settle down.

    Why do I live here again?

  12. Mike – I found your Marina City experiences extremely interesting. As a highrise condo owner on the lakefront near Foster Ave. along Sheridan Road (site of the former Edgewater Beach Hotel).

    My unit is on the 29th Floor of a 38 story building facing the lake front that was built in the late 1960s — somewhat the same era as Marina City.

    Everything you described is exactly as it is here – moaning, groaning, creaking and swaying. I have often tried to tell others about this sensation but until you can actually experience this whole phenomenon, they will give you these really weird looks.

    Yours is the first article I have seen describing this unique situation and I am certainly going to make copies of it to show everyone what I have been talking about for years.


  13. OK, that was spooky and having worked in Sears Tower for two years on an upper floor I can honestly say I NEVER heard a noise like that. I could feel the movement, but the noise is scary.

  14. Zilla, the recording was done closer to the outside of the building, on top of a bookshelf about ten feet from the outer window wall. The noise comes from the topmost area of the wall that meets the large, structural columns that run lengthwise through each side of a Marina City apartment, from core to “outer wall”. (Of course, we don’t have outer walls at all. Just plate-glass windows and back doors.)

  15. I think you’re right about the lathe and old metal truss studs in the walls creaking. Structural steel sounds much more like a sinking ship, deep groaning. High strength concrete to my knowledge doesn’t make noise but it moves – thus straining the interior partitions. You can tell it’s a concrete building by the short 2-second period.

    Was the recording taken closer to the outside of the floor or corridor?

  16. Thanks for backing me up, Jeff! Rich, Jeff will tell you that the creaking really can be that loud and rhythmic.

    Designslinger, in the late 1990s I used to attend transportation planning meetings on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. On windy days, you could hear the groaning clearly from the men’s room–and, yes, there you could feel the sway, too.

  17. OH MY GAWD!

    Just listened to your recording; that was incredible.

    I know that tall buildings are supposed to give a little, and when I lived in New York, visiting friends always wanted to go to the top of the World Trade Center when it was really windy to feel the building sway. I understand that if the building was too rigid it would snap off or something, but still, it doesn’t seem right.

    Your granny’s rocker is very creaky and a little unnerving to say the least. You’re very brave.

  18. I worked in the Hancock Center for about 6 years. I started out as an overnight intern at a radio station and I can totally relate to this. People never believed me when I told them that the building actually creaked, loudly.

    From what I am told by my best friend’s dad — a structural engineer who actually worked on that building — these buildings are designed to do this. It’s actually good that they move around like that, despite the annoying, sometimes creepy sounds.

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