The Merchandise Mart has been an icon in Chicago’s history since the 1920s. The Merchandise Mart was developed by Marshall Field & Co. to create a central marketplace where stocking retailers could come to buy their wares all under one roof. Since The Merchandise Mart opened on Monday, May 5, 1930, six months into the Depression, it has housed products that target audiences and department store buyers want to see and purchase.
After a downturn during Great Depression and a conversion of the building to government offices during World War II, The Mart was returned to its initial use when it was purchased by Joseph P. Kennedy in 1945. Kennedy ushered in a new era of mercantile pride by reviving the original concept of the building and gradually allowing public access. The Merchandise Mart was once again primed to be a market maker.
In the mid-1940s and 1950s, The Merchandise Mart was the single largest producer of trade shows in the United States. It helped to lay the foundation for Chicago’s continued leadership in America’s convention and tourism industry. Since the mid-1940s, showrooms in The Merchandise Mart have displayed almost every kind of product produced and MMPI has attracted every sort of professional buyer to the building.
Today The Mart is the world’s largest commercial building, largest wholesale design center and one of Chicago’s premier international business locations. The Chicago icon encompasses 4.2 million gross square feet, spans two city blocks and rises 25 stories. It is home to 15 major trade and consumer shows as well as hundreds of meetings and special events. Because The Mart is also home to corporate offices of dozens of leading firms and attracts professional buyers and consumers to its showrooms and events, The Mart is visited by 38,500 people each business day.
With its unmistakable presence on the banks of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, The Merchandise Mart is interwoven into the fabric of Chicago’s history and its role as a leading innovator in culture, art, business, fashion, media and more.
The Merchandise Mart is owned by Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc (MMPI), which was the original company set up to manage the Kennedy family’s portfolio of real estate assets which was largely concentrated in the showroom business. In 1998, the Kennedy family sold MMPI, including The Merchandise Mart building, to Vornado Realty Trust (VNO).
Headquartered in New York City, Vornado is one of the largest owners and managers of real estate in the United States with a portfolio of approximately 60 million square feet.
The Merchandise Mart was the brainchild of James Simpson, president of Marshall Field & Co. from 1923 to 1930 and chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission from 1926 to 1935. The purpose was to consolidate Field's wholesale activities that were scattered about the city in 13 different warehouses by creatinga central marketplace where stocking retailers could come to buy their wares all under one roof.
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 & Co. 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.
James Simpson and architect Ernest Graham tossed the first shovelful of dirt to begin construction on August 16, 1928. New techniques developed by general contractor John W. Griffiths & Sons brought building construction into the machine age. Especially innovative was a system for mixing and placing concrete, which as described, was "ordinarily used in the construction of big dams." Cement, arriving by boat, was shot by compressed air 75 feet up to mammoth bins. Gravel and sand were delivered by bottom dumping railroad cars to another bin. Conveyors and elevators transferred these ingredients to giant mixers. The wet concrete was then elevated by skip hoists in vertical towers that were extended as the building rose. The construction project, which lasted a year and a half through the first months of the Depression, employed 2,500 men through its duration and as many as 5,700 men altogether.
Graham, Anderson, Probst and White's part was determined in part by agreements made in the air rights union. The building fills the entire site, its footprint an irregular trapezoid that results from the oblique deviation of Orleans Street from the city grid. The riverfront of the building, the south facade, predominates in plan as well as elevation. Express elevators rose directly to the seventh floor, above the point where Marshall Field & Co. occupied floors three to six. The linear arrangement of the elevator and service core that extends the building's entire two-block length on this side flows the linear arrangement of the tracks below. Freight elevators opened to the rear, where open stock merchandise was housed. The north facade, covered with fire escapes, held the entrance to the truck loading dock that occupied the entire rear portion of the first floor.
Architectural Elements & Style
Designer Alfred Shaw conveyed the unique, modern concept of The Merchandise Mart with an Art Deco Style and integration of elements from three building types: the warehouse, the department store and the skyscraper office building. A huge, typical warehouse block comprises the 18-story bulk of the building. Repetitious, unadorned ribbon piers define the fenestration pattern. The building's chambered corners (a design element perhaps generated by the oblique angle of Orleans Street), the minimal setbacks of the roofline, and the corner pavilions serve to camouflage the edges of the basically rectilinear mass, visually reducing its weight and bulk. The functional reason given for this massing was the conception of the building as a hermetically sealed box.
The building opens up at pedestrian level where the two-story base is glazed with the overscaled display windows typical of a department store. Enframed in richly embossed bronze, the windows are featured along the length of the south, west and east facades.
The 25-story central tower projects and rises from the main block to reveal its affinity with the corporate skyscraper. Concentrated here was the building's program of ornamental imagery. The deeply recessed and overscaled portal stands between raised panels, above which hang octagonal medallions featuring the interlocked initials of The Merchandise Mart, a logo that recurs throughout the building and on early promotional material and stationery.
The local origins of Chicago's trade are depicted on the tower's crown. There, 56 American Indian chiefs stood head shoulder and arms above the city, proudly asserting their part in Chicago's nascent trade activities.
These terra-cotta acroteria, measuring 3.5 X 7 feet but barely visible from the street, 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.
The lobby of The Merchandise Mart, in an overall palette of buff, bronze and warm tones, exemplifies the understated elegance that characterizes Shaw's later designs. Eight square marble piers, so slightly fluted that they appear to be merely striped, define the main lobby area. Side aisles are lined with shop fronts enframed in the lavishly embossed bronze trim found throughout this level. The terrazzo floor, in pale hues of green and orange, was conceived as a carpet: a lively pattern of squares and stripes bordered by overscaled chevrons inlaid with an abstraction of The Mart's initials. The chevron motif is carried out three-dimensionally in the column sconces that cast their light onto an ornamented cornice situated above. The crowning feature of the lobby, is Jules Guerin's frieze of murals, which complete the iconographic trilogy of the building.
Between the lobby and the elevator banks, the arcade that extends the length of the building provided the shops and services "normally found on the main street of almost any town." During the earliest years of the building, this area was home to lunch counters, a restaurant and retail shops for everything from clothing to candy. Services included an optician, beautician, barber and a post office.
In The Mart's upper stories, two wide 650-feet long corridors with terrazzo floors, referred to as "business boulevards" featured six and one-half miles of display windows, all uniformly designed. Building regulations called for identical entrances along the corridors; tenants could personalize the space behind. This “showroom” concept remains as manufacturers and distributors rent showrooms on about half of the floors of The Mart today.
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.
Since the original construction, many well-known international and Chicago-based architects have made their mark on The Merchandise Mart including:
Beyer Blender Belle Architects & Planners LLP
The Environments Group
Graham Anderson Probst & White
Nagle Hartray Danker Kagan McKay Penney
PEI Cobb Freed & Partners
Valerio Dewalt Train
Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP
Solomon Cordwell Buenz