Merchandise Mart
When opened in 1930, the Merchandise Mart or the Mart, located in the Near North Side, Chicago, Illinois, was the largest building in the world with 4,000,000 square feet (372,000 m 2) of floor space. Previously owned by the Marshall Field family, the Mart centralized Chicago's wholesale goods business by consolidating vendors and trade under a single roof. Massive in its construction, and serving as a monument to early 20th century merchandising and architecture, the art deco landmark anchors the daytime skyline at the junction of the Chicago River branches. With upper levels bathed in colored floodlight, the structure stands out against darker downtown buildings in night views. The building continues to be a leading retailing and wholesale destination, hosting 20,000 visitors and tenants per day.

In 1926, a westward extension of double-deck Wacker Drive increased development on the south riverbank. In 1927, Marshall Field and Company announced its plans to build on the north bank opposite Wacker Drive. Owned by Marshall Field & Co., the Merchandise Mart opened on May 5, 1930, just east of Chicago's original trading post, Wolf Point. Bordered by Orleans, Wells and Kinzie Streets, the site was a former Native American trading post and the site of Chicago and North Western Railway's former Wells Street Station, abandoned in 1911 in favor of the Chicago and North Western Passenger Terminal. With the railroad's air rights, the site was large enough to accommodate "the largest building in the world". Removing the train yard supported the Chicago Plan Commission's desire to develop and beautify the riverfront. The building realized Marshall Field’s dream of a single wholesale center for the entire nation and consolidated 13 different warehouses. Later managed by Sargent Shriver, the building was owned for more than 50 years by the Kennedy family through Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. until 1998, when MMPI was acquired by Vornado Realty Trust for $450 million in cash and a $100-million-plus stake in Vornado. In early 2007, the building was valued at $917 million.

The Merchandise Mart was designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White to be a "city within a city". Second only to Holabird & Root in Chicago art deco architecture, the firm had a long-standing relationship with the Field family. Started in 1928, completed in 1931, and built in the same art deco style as the Chicago Board of Trade Building, its cost was reported as both $32 million and $38 million. The building was the largest in the world in terms of floorspace, but was surpassed by The Pentagon in 1943, and now stands twenty-fifth on the list of largest buildings in the world. Once the largest commercial space in the world, the Aalsmeer Flower Auction is now recognized by Guinness World Records as holding the record.

James Simpson, president of Marshall Field and Company from 1923 to 1930 and chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission from 1926 to 1935, along with architect Ernest Graham turned the first shovels of dirt at groundbreaking on August 16, 1928. General contractor John W. Griffiths & Sons brought building construction into the machine age through the use of techniques "ordinarily used in the construction of big dams." Cement arriving by boat was lifted by compressed air to bins 75 feet (20 m) above the ground, with gravel and sand delivered by railroad cars to conveyor belts and transfer elevators. Giant mixers provided wet concrete to skip hoists in vertical towers that were extended as the building rose. Continuously employing 2,500 men and as many as 5,700 men altogether, the construction project lasted a year and a half into the early months of the Great Depression. With a foundation footprint of nearly two square city blocks, the building required 29 million bricks, 40 miles (64 km) of plumbing, 380 miles (610 km) of wiring, nearly 4,000,000 cubic yards (3,100,000 m 3) of concrete, 200,000 cubic feet (5,700 m 3) of stone, and 4,000 windows. Bethlehem Steel fabricated much of the 60,000 tons of steel. An estimated 7.5 miles (10 km) miles of corridors and over 30 elevators were included in the construction.

Designer Alfred Shaw integrated art deco stylings with influences from three building types - the warehouse, the department store and the skyscraper. A warehouse block stands as the 18-story bulk of the building. Ribbon piers define the windows, and the building's chamfered corners, minimal setbacks, and corner pavilions disguise the edges of the mass and visually reduce bulk. The south corner pavilions are of greater height than the north corner pavilions. The building is open at the pedestrian level with bronzed framed display windows, typical of a department store, on the south, west and east boundaries. The 25-story central tower ascends with a peak in the form of a skyscraper, and rests in the southern half of the building. Deeply recessed portals occur between raised panels, and are adorned with medallions featuring the interlocked initials of the Merchandise Mart. The same logo occurs throughout the building. Fifty six American Indian chiefs circled the tower's crown, a reference to the site's history and Chicago's early trade activities. Three and a half feet wide by seven feet tall, the terra cotta figures were barely visible from the street, meant to be viewed from the upper floors of the skyscrapers planned to rise along the riverbank.

The lobby of The Merchandise Mart is defined by eight square marble piers, with storefronts in side aisles framed in embossed bronze trim. The green and orange terrazzo floor was conceived as a carpet: a pattern of squares and stripes bordered by overscaled chevrons inlaid with The Mart's initials. The chevron theme is continued in the column sconces lighting an ornamented cornice overhead. Referred to as "business boulevards", two wide 650 feet (200 m) long corridors with terrazzo floors in the upper levels featured six and one-half miles of display windows. Building regulations specified identical entrances along corridors but tenants could personalize the individual floorspace. Excepting the corridors, elevator halls, and exhibition space on the fourth floor, the 5 acres (20,000 m 2) of each upper floor was "raw space" with concrete floors.

Expansions and renovations
After years of being used by hundreds of government offices moving to The Pentagon, the purchase was followed by a renovation creating office space on the lower floors and promoting use of the upper floors for home furnishing and apparel showrooms. The Merchandise Mart was modernized in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Indian chiefs were removed, destroyed and replaced with concrete plates in 1961, of minimal note to onlookers as skyscrapers did not rise on the north side of the river as predicted. In 1962, an entrance canopy was constructed over the south for vehicle use. In 1977, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed the Chicago Apparel Center, located on the west side of Orleans Street, which increased the Merchandise Mart’s total floor space to 6,200,000 square feet (576,000 m 2). Making use of plazas, esplanades and overlooks employed the waterfront location for pedestrian pleasure. In 1988, Helmut Jahn designed an enclosed pedestrian walking bridge over Orleans Street connecting the Mart and the Apparel Center. After a 10 year, $100 million modernization in the late 1980s that included public utility upgrades, Beyer Blinder Belle's commission in 1989 was to create additional perimeter entrances and restore the display windows, main entrance and lobby. On the south facade, the drive-through canopy was removed and two smaller doorways aside the main entrance were added. Display windows, painted over during the earlier modernization campaign, were restored with clear glass to showcase merchant's wares. New main and corner entrances were added to the rear facade, and the loading dock that occupied the north portion of the first floor of the river level was removed in order to use the bottom deck of North Bank Drive. Improvements to the lobby included restoration of the original glass curtain wall over the entrance, shop fronts and reception desk using terrazzo floors and wall sconces influenced by the original design. The project was completed in 1991. In November 2007, the building received LEED for Existing Buildings Silver recognition.

Jules Guerin's frieze of 17 murals is the primary feature of the lobby and graphically illustrate commerce throughout the world, including the countries of origin for items sold in the building. The murals depict the industries and products, the primary mode of transportation and the architecture of 14 countries. Drawing on years as a stage set designer, Guerin executed the murals in red with gold leaf using techniques producing distinct image layers in successive planes. In a panel representing Italy, Venetian glassware appears in the foreground with fishing boats moored on the Grand Canal and the facade of the Palazzo Ducale rises above the towers of the Piazza San Marco. "To immortalize outstanding American merchants", Joseph Kennedy in 1953 commissioned eight bronze busts, four times life size, which would come to be known as the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame:
  • retail magnates Frank Winfield Woolworth, Marshall Field and Aaron Montgomery Ward
  • Julius Rosenwald and Robert Elkington Wood of Sears, Roebuck and Company fame
  • advertiser John Wanamaker, merchandiser Edward Albert Filene, and A&P grocery chain founder George Huntington Hartford.
All of the busts rest on white pedestals lining the Chicago River and face north toward the gold front door of the building.

Dominating the skyline in the south end of the Near North Side, the Mart lies just south of the gallery district on the southern terminus of Franklin Street. Eateries and nightclubs abound on Hubbard Street one block to the north. The Kinzie Chop House, popular with politicians and celebrities, stands on the northwest corner of Wells and Kinzie, across from the Merchandise Mart. The Chicago Varnish Company Building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now housing Harry Caray's restaurant, is located east on Kinzie Street. Across the street to the east is 325 N. Wells Street, home to The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. The Mart is not rectangular in shape due to being constructed after the bascule bridges over the Chicago River. The control house for the double decked Wells Street Bridge stands between the lower level and the southeast corner of the building. The Franklin Street Bridge stands at the southwest corner of the building, at the junction of Orleans Street and Franklin Street. The building slants at the same angle as Franklin Street, from southeast to northwest along Orleans Street. One block east of the Merchandise Mart at 350 N. LaSalle is the Headquarters of Real Time Freight Services LLC, a software technology leader in the transportation industry. One block east on LaSalle Street, the 60 story 300 North LaSalle, completed in 2009.

Exterior lighting
A heritage of lighting the structure finds the central and corner towers, along with the columns between each window on the setbacks, bathed nightly in an upwardly focused white light. Tradition dictates annual changes to green in mid-March for St. Patrick's Day and orange during the fall months around Halloween and Thanksgiving. Prominent events have found the behemoth lit in pink for Cancer Awareness Month. To note the 2006 Chicago Bears season, highlighted by reaching Super Bowl XLI, the building was lit with team colors, orange floodlights for the setbacks and blue floodlights for the towers. Red and green lights are used during the Christmas season. Nighttime lighting on the Mart typically matches the colors of antenna lighting on the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center, as well as the colors used on the top floors of the Aon Center.


Wholesale showrooms occupy 50% of the usable floor space, and the Sultan of Brunei once spent $1.6 million at the Mart to furnish his entire palace, claiming the location was the only place where the task could be completed in one week. Select showrooms are open only to wholesalers, with others accessible to the general public. Unlike stores with traditional shelf and rack displays, entire usable rooms are created, providing consumers an opportunity to compare form and function between applications and manufacturers. A portion of the stores offer items for purchase singly or as a collection, while others offer design services, preservation, renovation, or installation. In addition to being a resource for architects and decorators, the Mart also has featured award winning designs as selected by the American Institute of Architects. Catering to suppliers, on-site firms specialize in providing professional services for market research projects. In 1931, Marshall Field and Company lost five million dollars, followed by eight million in 1932. The wholesale division was greatly reduced and Field's reduced its space in the Mart from four floors to one and half. The Mart continued to display the latest trends in home furnishings within the showrooms and trade shows. The company recovered late in the decade, but did not return to all previously occupied space. In 1942, L.L. Skaggs formed a partnership with three other men and named the partnership the Owners Service Company, hence Osco. The headquarters was moved from Waterloo, Iowa to the Merchandise Mart. A retail shopping area, opened in 1991 and named The Shops at the Mart, includes apparel shops, beauty services, bookstores and newsstands, financial services, telecommunication services, travel services, specialty food and wine stores, photo services, a dry cleaner, shoe shine stand, and a food court. A United States Postal Service office is located on the first floor and a FedEx location is located on the second floor. The Apparel Center houses the 530 room Chicago Mart Plaza Hotel, the offices of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago campus of the Illinois Institute of Art, as well as the Chicago office of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency. American Intercontinental University occupies 93,000 square feet (8,600 m 2) on the 5th floor of Merchandise Mart, the Potbelly Sandwich Works' corporate offices are located in the tower.

Trade Fairs
Since 1969, the Merchandise Mart has been home to the annual National Exposition of Contract Furnishings, known as NeoCon. With over 1,000 exhibitors of contract and commercial furnishings, and 50,000 attendees, it is the largest trade show of its kind in North America. Since 2006 the Merchandise Mart has played host to the Art Chicago international art fair.

Mass media
Radio Before the location even opened, NBC announced plans to build studios in the Mart. When opened on October 20, 1930, the twentieth floor location covered 65,000 square feet (6,000 m 2) and supported a variety of live broadcasts including those requiring orchestras. WENR and WMAQ broadcast from the location. Expanded in 1935, with office space in the previously unoccupied tower, the additional 11,500 square feet (1,070 m 2) provided room for an organ chamber, two echo rooms, and a total of 11 studios. A staff of more than 300 produced up to 1,700 programs each month including Amos 'n' Andy . Hugh Downs contributed to the Burr Tillstrom children's show Kukla, Fran and Ollie from the NBC studios after the network picked up the program from WBKB. The Captain Midnight radio program was broadcast from the Mart from 1942 until 1945. Alternative rock music radio station WKQX currently occupies space on the west side of the second floor, and was home to DJ Mancow Muller for 8 years. WLUP broadcasts classic hard rock music from the location. Television On January 7, 1949, NBC station WNBQ commercially debuted its television broadcast schedule on channel 5, with a minimum of two hours of programming per day. April 15, 1956, is remembered as "C-Day" at WMAQ-TV, and was described by Broadcasting-Telecasting magazine as "a daring breakthrough the black-and-white curtain." With Mayor Richard J. Daley looking on, NBC President Robert Sarnoff operated the controls as Channel 5 became the world's first all-color TV station as "Wide, Wide World" was broadcast to 110 NBC-TV affiliated stations across the country. The color conversion project cost more than $1,250,000 with advertising costing $175,000. On "C-Day", three skywriting planes flew over the city, trailing streams of red, green and blue smoke. WMAQ-TV first installed color equipment in late 1953, with the Rose Bowl parade of 1954 as the first major broadcast. Introduced in March 1955, the first local color program was John Ott's "How Does Your Garden Grow?", featuring the use of time-lapse color film. Although WMAQ-TV has since moved to NBC Tower about a mile away, and for the most part the 19th floor of the Mart has been turned into office space, one former tenant (Bankers Life and Trust Company) maintained a remnant of the original studios as their video and multimedia department. The former WMAQ space is currently being redeveloped by Flashpoint Academy as a full modern soundstage facility as well as a screening room, backlot, and classroom space over the 19th and 20th floors. Local regional sports network Comcast SportsNet Chicago has their control room, and broadcasts their live studio programming from the Apparel Center expansion; the studios had been home to previous RSNs FSN Chicago and SportsChannel Chicago.

Public transit
Built in under four months and opened on December 1, 1930, the Merchandise Mart elevated train station served the Main Line of the North Side Division. The station is now noted for being one of two commercial locations to have its own station on the Chicago Transit Authority's 'L' system. The Merchandise Mart station is served by the Brown and Purple Lines. An ADA accessible station, the turnstiles are located within the building on the second floor, while the platforms are connected to the east side of the building. The northbound platform is accessed by an overhead bridge or elevator. It was rebuilt in 1988, prior to the Wells Street Bridge reconstruction in 1989. The Merchandise Mart housed the CTA's headquarters on the 7th floor from 1947 to 2004.

In popular culture
  • Owing to the expanding postwar economy and family, ownership began offering tours in 1948. Architecture and design interest groups continue to offer scheduled tours.
  • Movies and TV shows frequently are filmed on the Wells Street Bridge and underneath the elevated tracks on Franklin.
  • Chicago Marathon routes have taken runners past the structure, typically on Wells Street.
  • The Mart hosts the annual Art Chicago activities.
  • In the opening credits of the 1970s television sitcom Good Times, the building is depicted prior to renovation and revitalization.
  • The 1948 film Call Northside 777 , was made in Illinois and the Mart is seen from newspaper offices on Wacker Drive.
  • The lobby appeared in the movie "Hudsucker Proxy" as the interior of the Hudsucker Company headquarters.
  • In 1956, the film "The Merchandise Mart" used the Mart's name and was filmed throughout Illinois.
  • David Letterman once called the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame "the Pez Hall of Fame" because the combination of busts atop the tall vertical pedestals resembled the candy's dispensers.
  • In the 1993 film The Fugitive , the location of Harrison Ford's character is pinpointed by police when they hear a CTA train operator announce, "Next stop, Merchandise Mart" in the background of a recorded phone call.


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