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Summary:

Motorola declared its official return to Chicago today, opening up its new digs to the media. We snapped some photos to give our readers the tour and explain why Moto’s homecoming matters.

Motorola logo in graffiti
photo: Gigaom / Kevin Fitchard

Motorola Mobility moved into its new corporate headquarters in February, but on Tuesday it held its grand unveiling, opening up its four floors of Chicago’s historic and imposing Merchandise Mart to media and other visitors.

The event was big on local dignitaries like Chicago’s colorful mayor Rahm Emanuel and largesse (Motorola donated $150,000 to Chicago libraries for its maker lab program). There were surprisingly few mentions of Google — Motorola’s current corporate parent — and absolutely none of Lenovo, which is attempting to buy Mobility for $2.91 billion. Mainly, the event was intended to celebrate Chicago’s emerging tech sector.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaking at Motorola's opening event

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaking at Motorola’s opening event

You have to forgive Chicago its tech boosterism because, frankly, this is a big deal for the Windy City.

Motorola is Chicago’s wayward son. It was founded 80 years ago here, and for much of its history it was a dominant force in the telecommunications industry, even creating the first cellular phone. But for half that time, Motorola wasn’t actually in the city of Chicago. It followed the paths of white flight to suburbs like Schaumburg, Arlington Heights and Libertyville where, for a time, it earned its fortunes at the top of mobile handset heap.

Motorola HQ workspace

A typical work space in Motorola’s new home

It’s a bit ironic that the Motorola returning to Chicago is a shadow of its former self. Its networking and device divisions have been diced up into different companies or sold off. The Motorola Mobility taking up residence in Chicago isn’t even an independent company; instead, it’s 2,000 employees on Google’s payroll. It long ago lost its leading role in handsets to Nokia, which in turn succumbed to the likes of Samsung and Apple.

The lobby

The lobby

A break room with Chicago's "L" train map used as information display

A break room with Chicago’s “L” train map used as information display

But I think I speak for most Chicagoans when I say “we’ll take it.” In a city that’s more known for Teamsters than programmers, Motorola brings mobile engineering credibility back to the city. As Mayor Emanuel hopes, its presence might even encourage tech workers from Illinois’s big engineering universities to stay in the Midwest, rather than flee to Silicon Valley.

Detail of the light wall in Motorola's new lobby

Detail of the light wall in Motorola’s new lobby

Motorola's giant anechoic chamber, basically a shielded room where engineers can test radio technologies without interference.

Motorola’s giant anechoic chamber, basically a shielded room where engineers can test radio technologies without interference.

Motorola is also intended to serve as an anchor for Chicago’s big tech real estate project. The Merchandise Mart was once the largest mercantile showroom in the country, bringing in wholesalers from all over the world to its massive art deco floor spaces. Those merchants are now largely gone, and the Merch Mart is trying to reinvent itself as a gigantic tech hive. Chicago’s tech hub 1871 was already located there, and Motorola has taken over the building’s top four floors, totaling 600,000 square feet.

The imposing Merch Mart. Motorola occupies the top four stories (source: Flickr / HarshLight)

The imposing Merch Mart. Motorola occupies the top four stories outside of the central tower (source: Flickr / HarshLight)

Motorola took over the top of the Merch Mart giving it rooftop access

Motorola took over the top of the Merch Mart giving it rooftop access

Of course, the big elephant in the room is what will happen when Lenovo takes over. Unlike Google, Lenovo has a big mobile phone business of its own, and it happens to be based in China. Luckily for Motorola and Chicago, Lenovo’s mobile business is largely overseas, while Motorola’s focus remains in the U.S.

Motorola's architecture firm Gensler punched through the ceilings of the 18th and 19th floor to create a central gathering area.

Motorola’s architecture firm Gensler punched through the ceilings of the 18th and 19th floor to create a central gathering area.

Detail of Motorola HQ main area

This way to the elevators

This way to the elevators

Machine shop complete with MakerBots

Machine shop complete with MakerBots

Motorola HQ lounge

All photos by Gigaom / Kevin Fitchard except where noted

 

  1. It should also be noted that no tax-increment financing (TIF) money was involved, which is very, very, VERY surprising.

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    1. I love this very Chicago-y comment!

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  2. Chris Lazzerini Wednesday, April 23, 2014

    Motorola is not on the top two floors. Chicago native and always located in city, Potbelly Sandwich Works, resides on the ACTUAL top 2 floors, 23 and 24.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Wednesday, April 23, 2014

      Hi Chris, I assume you mean the central tower? Good point. I’ll fix that in the captions so there is no confusion.

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