of the Mart
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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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