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What is The Merchandise Mart?

James Simpson, the third President of Marshall Field & Company (1923-1930) – after Marshall Field I and John Graves Shedd – and Chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission (1926-1935) built The Merchandise Mart between 1928 and 1930 to be a centralized headquarters for the wholesale divisions of Marshall Field & Company, as well as to provide rental income via space for tenant retailers and restaurants. Those of us old enough to remember Marshall Field & Company think of it as a department store, but originally there were two sides to the business: retail and wholesale.

Simpson had risen up through the wholesale end of the company. At the time he became president, the wholesale business was spread out among thirteen warehouses across Chicago.

The famed architectural firm Graham, Anderson, Probst and White designed The Merchandise Mart, much as they designed the Marshall Field & Company flagship store on State Street (now a Macy’s), the Field Museum of Natural History, and the John G. Shedd Aquarium for the company and its executives. Architect Alfred Shaw also designed the interior of the Museum of Science & Industry, the Civic Opera House, the Morton wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the first McCormick Place.

The general contractor was John W. Griffiths & Sons. Approximately 5,700 men worked on the construction project. In terms of floor space, it was the largest building on Earth until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the 6,200,000-square-foot Pentagon in 1943.

As explained by Michael Paul Wakeford in The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, “It originally housed Marshall Field's wholesale showrooms and manufacturing facilities, plus the showrooms of retail tenants. The Merchandise Mart centralized Field's wholesale trade on an unprecedented scale, introducing millions to the latest in home and commercial furnishings and other consumer wares. The Merchandise Mart boasted superior shipping and transport facilities and amenities including parking, restaurants, visitor lounges, a barbershop, and postal and telegraph offices.”

In 1930, Simpson resigned the presidency of Marshall Field & Company to reorganize Chicago’s utility companies (in the wake of the collapse of Samuel Insull’s utilities empire). In 1932, Simpson resigned as Chairman of the Board, but remained Chairman of the Executive Committee.

With, Simpson brought in efficiency expert, John O. McKinsey, in the hope that he could turn around the wholesale business, which was in decline, but McKinsey concluded the jobbing division would have to go. A ghost of its former self, the wholesale business of Marshall Field & Company went from occupying four floors to one-and-a-half.

The Merchandise Mart, however, remained the place to see avant-garde home furnishings in showrooms and trade shows. During World War II, hundreds of government offices were housed in The Merchandise Mart.

Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) acquired The Merchandise Mart from Marshall Field & Company in 1945. The Kennedy family owned it for decades until they sold it to the Vornado realty trust in 1998.

Under Joseph Kennedy’s leadership, The Merchandise Mart was organized with office spaces on the lower floors and furnishing and apparel showrooms on the upper floors. The enormous structure opened to the public in 1948 with daily tours conducted by The Merchandise Mart Guide Service.

In 1953, Joe Kennedy opened the Merchant’s Hall of Fame “to immortalize outstanding American merchants.” The eight men inducted into the Merchant Hall of Fame are represented by bronze busts – four times life’s size – standing on pillars on the Chicago River Side of the plaza, facing the Merchandise Mart. The men thus honored are General Robert Elkington Wood (1879-1969),[1] Frank Winfield Woolworth (1856-1947),[2] Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932),[3], Marshall Field I (1834-1906),[4], John Wanamaker (1838-1922),[5], Aaron Montgomery Ward (1843-1919);[6], George Huntington Hartford (1833-1917),[7] and Edward Albert Filene (1860-1937).[8]

Originally, the riverside façade included 3.5’ x 7’ terra-cotta Indian chief busts, executed in the building’s Art Deco style, which leant the building a majestic air and alluded to the area’s native race. According to Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. (M.M.P.I.), they “were meant to be seen from the upper floors of the skyscrapers that would rise along the riverbank drives above the relatively low plateau of The Mart.”

M.M.P.I. stated, “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 vehicle drive-through.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, wholesale centers similar in concept to The Merchandise Mart opened in other major cities, including Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles. M.M.P.I. opened the Washington Design Center in Washington, D.C.
In 1977, M.M.P.I. opened the Chicago Apparel Center, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, next door to The Merchandise Mart. Another renovation of The Merchandise Mart began in 1986.

Two years later, a skyway, an enclosed pedestrian bridge, designed by Helmut Jahn over Orleans Street that connected The Merchandise Mart and the Chicago Apparel Center was built. In 1989, M.M.P.I. commissioned the New York City-based architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle to create a retail mall on the first and second floors of The Merchandise Mart.

The idea was to be able to accommodate both the daily crowds of 20,000 tenants and visitors, the large numbers of people drawn by special events like trade shows, and the growing number of residents in the North Loop and River North. The firm added entrances at the perimeter of The Merchandise Mart and added a main entrance on the north façade; restored the display windows, main entrance, and lobby; and removed the drive-through canopy on the south side of the building. The lobby restoration included shop fronts, terrazzo floors, and wall sconces, the replication of the glass curtain wall above the entrance, and a new reception desk.

Further, they removed the loading dock at the north end of the first floor and remodeled the bottom deck of North Bank Drive (otherwise unbuilt) on the river level, under the plaza, as a new loading dock. When Beyer Blinder Belle’s project was finished in 1991, the first two floors of The Merchandise Mart were named the Shops at The Mart.
An early supporter of President Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., Christopher George Kennedy, the Chairman of the Board of the University of Illinois, served as president of the real estate-management company Merchandise Mart Properties from 2000 to 2012.

Parts of The Merchandise Mart appeared on screen in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) as the headquarters of the fictional company Hudsucker Industries. In the dystopian future Chicago of the Divergent series of novels and films, the ruins of The Merchandise Mart is the headquarters of one of the city’s five factions, Candor.

[1] A logistician and purchasing agent who rose to the position of Acting Quartermaster General of the Army during World War I, in his postwar civilian career General Wood served as a Vice-President of Montgomery Ward & Company; Vice-President of Sears, Roebuck & Company; President of Sears; and Chairman of Sears. Wood pushed for the creation of Sears stores to compliment the mail-order retailer’s catalog business. He also founded the Allstate Insurance Company as a subsidiary of Sears.

[2] After his brother, Charles Woolworth’s death, Frank Woolworth transformed the family’s discount goods store into the chain of five-and-dime stores known as F.W. Woolworth & Company. Woolworth dealt directly with manufacturers to bring his customers products at the lowest possible prices. By the time he retired in 1944, there were 2,000 Woolworth’s stores. In 1982, the F.W. Woolworth Company spun-off its British subsidiary, Woolworths Group, which ceased operations in 2009. Under increasing pressure from other retailers, in 1997, the company’s leadership closed the remaining Woolworth’s stores to focus on the Foot Locker division. It became Foot Locker, Inc. at the turn of the century.

[3] With his brother Morris and their cousin, Julius Weil, Julius Rosenlwad started the textile-manufacturing company Rosenwald & Weil Clothiers. In 1894, he left Rosenwald & Weil Clothiers to found his own firm, Rosenwald & Company. One year later, in the midst of an economic depression, Alvah Roebuck (1864-1948) sold his half-ownership in Sears, Roebuck to Richard Sears (1863-1914), who sold Roebuck’s stake in the company to brothers-in-law Alfred Nusbuam and Julius Rosenwald for $75,000. In 1897, Roswnwald became an executive in the company. Until 1907, he was both Vice-President and Treasurer of Sears, Roebuck & Company. Rosenwald and Richard Sears proved to be a dynamic managerial team. In 1897, Sears, Roebuck & Company issued its first general catalog, going head to head with Montgomery Ward’s. In 1901, Sears and Rosenwald bought out Nusbuam’s interest in Sears, Roebuck & Company for $1,250,000.00. In 1906, Sears and Rosenwald turned to Rosenwald’s friend Henry Goldman’s firm, Goldman Sachs, to handle the Initial Public Offering (IPO) of stock in Sears, Roebuck & Company. Two years later, Richard Sears resigned presidency of the company he founded because of ill health and assumed the office of Chairman of the Board, with Julius Rosenwald succeeding him as president. In 1924, Roselwad resigned the presidency to become Chairman of the Board, in part so he could focus more energy on philanthropy. In 1917, Rosenwald had founded the Rosenwald Fund. Iin keeping with his philosophy of philanthropy that capital should be spent in the present to fund good works rather than invested to provide income to fund future good works in perpetuity, which he saw as a trap, the Rosenwald Fund had spent all its money by 1948. The Rosenwald Fund provided more than $4,000,000 to build over 5,357 public schools, 200 teachers’ homes, 163 workshops, and five trade schools for Black children in the South. He also paid to add 4,000 libraries to existent schools. Acting through The Commercial Club of Chicago, Rosenwald also founded the Museum of Science & Industry, which he modeled on the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

[4] In 1855, Marshall Field I met his future business partner, Levi Zeigler Leiter (1834-1904), while both were clerks at Cooley, Wadsworth & Company, a wholesale drapery house. Soon they were both partners in the organization. In 1865, they sold their interest in Cooley, Wadsworth & Company to John V. Farwell and purchased controlling interest in a dry goods firm founded by Potter Palmer (1826-1902). Palmer retired in 1867, and the name changed to Field, Leiter and Company, with Field as the merchandiser, and Leiter in charge of credit and finance. In 1881, Leiter sold out his interest in Field, Leiter & Company to Field, and Field reorganized the company as Marshall Field & Company. With partners including Harlow Higinbotham (1838-1919) and Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947) Field introduced such innovations as price tags, open return policies, in-store restaurants, free gift wrapping, and spirited window displays. A large donation during his lifetime led to the Columbian Museum becoming the Columbian Field Museum and an even larger bequest led to it becoming the Field Museum of Natural History.

[5] With his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown, John Wanamaker opened a men’s clothing store called oak Hill. Wanamaker purchased a shuttered Pennsylvania Railroad station to house his third store, Wanamaker’s Grand Depot, which was the first department store in Philadelphia, in time for the World’s fair of 1876. His innovations included having a restaurant on-site, electric lights, an elevator, a discount store downstairs, and full-page newspaper ads.

[6] Aaron Montgomery Ward was a former employee of Palmer and Field who started his mail-order retail company, the first in the world, at the intersection of Clark & Kinizie in 1872. The Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalog, popularly known as the Wish Book. The Michigan Avenue headquarters of A. Montgomery Ward & Company, built in 1899, gave Ward his famous view of Grant Park. Ward spent a fortune on lawsuits to compel the City of Chicago to clean up Grant Park to keep it clear of buildings. The only exception he made was for The Art Institute of Chicago.

[7] Hartford took The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) from a tea importer to one of the largest grocery store chains in the United States. According to Harvard Business School, “Hartford was an early proponent of advertising premium ‘give-aways’ and low prices.” A&P became the largest grocery store chain for more than fifty years.

[8] In 1909, Edward A. Filene founded Filene’s Basement as Filene’s Automatic Bargain Basement in the basement of Filene’s Department Store, which his father, William Filene, had founded. The idea was to sell “off price” the unsold merchandise from the department store, which Edward and his brother Lincoln had inherited. According to the company, “Mr. Filene developed a revolutionary way to price merchandise called the ‘Automatic Mark Down System.’ The price tag on each item was marked with the date it hit the selling floor. The longer an item remained unsold, the more the price would automatically be reduced, first 25%, then 50% and finally 75%. What was not sold was given to charity.” According to Harvard Business School, “Filene developed the world’s largest specialty store. In 1912, when Filene opened his new mega-store in Boston, 715,000 people came through the doors of the new store within one week.” Sales jumped from $4,800,000 to $8,500,000. E.A. Filene established a minimum wage for women, closed the store on Saturdays during the summer, and created The Filene Employees Credit Union.

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