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A spire has no function other than to touch the sky and, with it, the heart.

It is, in the simplest sense, a form of visual punctuation, making the end of a skyscraper’s climb as exultantly as an exclamation point ends a sentence. Poets of steel and stone call it an architectural transition from earth to heaven, from profane to sacred, from humdrum reality to glorious spirituality.

Done right, a spire makes its leap so deftly and so inevitably that a skyscraper would seem incomplete without it. Done wrong, it’s a clunky afterword, an unnecessary bit of embroidery, a vainglorious flagpole that’s simply trying to set a record.

Chicagoans will discover which of these possibilities they’re getting next weekend when a helicopter lifts a gray spire into place atop the sky-blue, 92-story Trump International Hotel & Tower.

And they’ll know whether Mayor Richard M. Daley was right in 2004 when he ordered developer Donald Trump—and, by implication, his architect, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—to adorn his previously flat-topped hotel and condominium tower with a decorative spire.

With this particular spire, all 227 feet and 8 inches of it, the Trump skyscraper will rise to a height of 1,361 feet, making it the second-tallest building in America after Sears Tower. But a yardstick isn’t the true measure of a spire. You measure it by heart-throbbing beauty.

Here are three of the world’s most-recognized spires—and the stories that go with them:

The Empire State Building

1931, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architect

Even if it lacked its top-drawer pop culture credentials, the Art Deco spire atop the Empire State Building would be an American icon. Clad in chrome-nickel steel, it rises to a cone-shaped top, buttressed by four diagonal wings made of cast aluminum. The skyscraper’s chiseled lower reaches are simply inconceivable without this flourish.

Originally, the spire was intended to be a mooring mast and depot for passenger-carrying dirigibles, but that idea was quickly shelved after some unsuccessful test runs. Instead, the spire entered the popular imagination with the 1933 “King Kong,” in which the title character climbs the skyscraper and battles attacking biplanes before falling to his death.

Today, the fact that the spire brought the Empire State’s height to 1,250 feet, making it the world’s tallest building for more than 40 years, seems immaterial. The Empire State remains an American icon, one that proves great design endures but records don’t.

The Chrysler Building

1930, William van Alen, architect

Everybody knows the Chrysler Building’s spectacular summit, a series of tapering sunbursts, covered in a combination of chrome and nickel steel, that evoke the flamboyance of the Roaring ’20s. But unless you’re a skyscraper aficionado, you’re probably unfamiliar with the covert construction maneuver that put the spire into place and enabled the Chrysler win to the race to become the world’s tallest building.

Knowing that a rival for the title, the Bank of Manhattan, would try to beat the Chrysler’s previously announced height of 925 feet, architect William van Alen had the spire secretly assembled where no one could see it—in the building’s fire shaft.

Once the Bank of Manhattan was finished, rising a scant two feet higher than the Chrysler was supposed to go, van Alen had the Chrysler’s spire hoisted into place. It stood 1,046 feet high, 60 feet higher than even the Eiffel Tower.

Petronas Towers

1998, Cesar Pelli, architect

These were the spires that broke Chicago’s heart, stripping Sears Tower of its world’s tallest building title—unfairly, many here claimed, because if you stood Sears and Petronas side by side, visitors to the Sears skydeck would have to look down some 150 feet on the highest occupied floors of Petronas.

But in 1996, with Petronas still under construction, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat upheld the standard that counts spires but not broadcast antennas in official height measurements. That allowed Petronas, with its 150-foot-tall steel spires, to beat Sears by 33 feet.

More than a decade later, with the Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates expected to reach more than 2,600 feet, the argument seems academic. The spires atop Petronas can be appreciated for what they are—poetic punctuation marks whose minaret-like tops reflect Malaysia’s dominant Islamic culture and put a new spin on the idea of a “cathedral of commerce.” Like all great spires, these lift us to aesthetic heights.

Blair Kamin
Chicago Tribune