History of the Mart

The Merchandise Mart was the brainchild of James Simpson, president of Marshall Field and Company from 1923 to 1930 and chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission from 1926 to 1935. The purpose was to consolidate Field's wholesale activities, which were scattered about the city in 13 different warehouses.

The concept of The Merchandise Mart failed to help Marshall Field's wholesale trade, but Graham, Anderson, Probst and White's dignified design and inherently flexible plan proved adaptable to change from the time of its inception. The building has continued to accommodate a diversity of factors, including ownership changes, marketing strategies, distribution chains and urban demographics.

More information on Marshall Field and Company |link|

In 1926, the completion of the first portion of the double-deck Wacker Drive extending westward from the bridge along the river opened up the south riverbank to development. In 1927, Marshall Field and Company announced its plans to build on the north bank opposite Wacker Drive.

Simpson's selection of a two-block site just east of Wolf Point, bordered by Orleans, Wells and Kinzie Streets, held further significance for the aesthetic development of the waterfront. The site comprised the Chicago and North Western Railroad's Wells Street Station complex, consisting of the tracks and numerous buildings that had accumulated over the years.

The building would be erected on the railroad's air rights, which provided Simpson with a site big enough to accommodate "the largest building in the world". At the same time, the unsightly train yard would be removed from view, thus furthering the Chicago Plan Commission's intent to develop and beautify the riverfront.

More information about air rights in Chicago |link|

The Merchandise Mart opened on Monday, May 5, 1930, six months into the Depression. In 1931, Marshall Field and Company's losses amounted to five million dollars; the figure rose to eight million in 1932. Simpson, who retired from his position as chairman of the board in 1932 to direct the reorganization of Chicago's utilities companies, remained as chairman of the executive committee. In 1935, still believing that he could save Field's wholesale division, Simpson called in John O. McKinsey, one of the new breeds of corporate management "efficiency experts." McKinsey dealt the final blow: Field's jobbing division, the heart and soul of wholesale trade, would have to be eliminated. Within six months of McKinsey's decision, Field's wholesale division was virtually liquidated.

Field's reduced its space in The Merchandise Mart from four floors to one and half. The Mart continued to introduce current and avant-garde trends in home furnishings in its showrooms and trade shows.

Events in the late 1930s spurred economic recovery, Marshall Field and Company once again began to record profit. Later, during the years of W.W.II, The Merchandise Mart experienced the dreary presence of hundreds of government offices. Ironically, this was the time when the completion of the Pentagon in 1943, at 6.2 million square feet, caused a change in The Mart's title from "the largest building in the world" to "the largest commercial building in the world."

In 1945, ownership of The Mart passed from Marshall Field and Company to Joseph P. Kennedy, former ambassador to Great Britain and father of the 35th president. Kennedy attributed his interest in The Merchandise Mart to his "faith in Chicago and the Middle West" and in Chicago's "great commercial and industrial future." Kennedy ushered in a new era of mercantile pride by reviving the original concept of the building and gradually allowing public access. Kennedy's staff first undertook a renovation by creating office space on the lower floors and encouraging the use of the upper floors for home furnishing and apparel showrooms. In 1948, responding to a trend of increasing consumer interest, his staff opened up The Mart to the public by instituting daily tours given by The Merchandise Mart Guide Service.

The Merchandise Mart underwent a modernization campaign in the late 1950s and 1960s that reflected a broader trend of renovating older, urban buildings in those decades. In 1953, Kennedy established the Merchant's Hall of Fame, its purpose "to immortalize outstanding American merchants." Those inducted into the institution are represented in eight bronze busts, four times life size that rise up from pillars on the river side of the plaza to face the building.

The unfortunate Indian chiefs, one of the casualties of the modernization were removed, destroyed and replaced with "clean looking concrete plates in 1961. The next year an entrance canopy was extended over the plaza to provide a vehicular drive-through.

In the 1950s and 1960s, other merchandise marts appeared throughout the country, including Dallas, Atlanta and Los Angeles. As design centers sprang up in other cities in response to the increased demand, Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. (MMPI) opened the Washington Design Center in Washington D.C.
In 1977, MMPI opened the Chicago Apparel Center adjacent to The Merchandise Mart. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed the Chicago Apparel Center.

In the 1980s, The Mart underwent another renovation. The project began in 1986. The Mart was cleaned and windows replaced by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. Also the roof repaired and the utilities systems upgraded.

In 1988, an enclosed pedestrian walk was designed by Helmut Jahn, which bridges over Orleans Street to connect The Mart and the Chicago Apparel Center.

The next year, Beyer Blinder Belle, a New York City architecture and planning firm known for its preservation work, was engaged to create a retail center on the first and second floors of The Mart. This retail center would accommodate the daily tenant and visitor population of 20,000 and the enormous crowds drawn by market events and trade shows, plus, the growing populations of the North Loop area at Wacker Drive and the River North neighborhood.

Beyer Blinder Belle's work included opening up the building by creating additional entrances around it perimeter and restoring the display windows, main entrance and lobby. On the south facade, they removed the drive-through canopy and cut two smaller portals on either side of the main entrance, thus utilizing the lower portions of the blank side panels. The overscaled display windows, painted over in the modernization campaign of the 60s were restored and tenant guidelines were stabled to ensure that clear glass would be used in order to reveal retail activities within. The rear facade was renovated to include main and corner entrances, thus opening up The Mart to the north. The loading dock that occupied the north portion of the first floor was removed to the river level under the plaza, utilizing the bottom deck of the unrealized North Bank Drive.


On the interior, a restoration of the lobby included replication of the original glass curtain wall over the entrance, restoration of shop fronts and even a new version of the original reception desk. Beyer Blinder Belle's scheme included shop fronts, terrazzo floors and wall sconces inspired by the original design. Upon its completion in 1991, the first two floors of The Mart were named the "Shops at The Mart."



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