Monday, April 9, 2007

Apple #235: Merchandise Mart

Next up in our What's Your Favorite Place series is the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. A reader named Cesar's Ghost also listed some of his favorite places in Chicago, but he seemed to be offering his own information about those places, rather than to be asking me to find out more for him. Cesar's Ghost, if you did want me to investigate any one of your favorite spots, let me know and I'll put together an Apple for you. In the meantime, we press on!

Here is the request I'll be responding to in this entry:
Hi Apple Lady -

You so deftly handled my request for Chicago River schooling prior to a (truly) death-defying swim that I thought I might make another Second City suggestion: The Merchandise Mart! It's right here in the heart of downtown, has been here for many years, and is only 1 of 2 places in the city that warrants its very own L stop. It has a lot of history and remains to this day a hub for interior design of all sorts (amongst other things). I work in the building and have always been fascinated with everything from the architectural details to the pez heads in front to the mysterious pictures of fancy 40s era parties held on the roof. Please shed some of your light upon this magnificent (and monstrous) building in downtown Chicago!


The Merchandise Mart in Chicago
(Photo by Felix)

The most obvious thing about the Merchandise Mart is that it's big. But how big is it?
  • The Mart encompasses two city blocks and contains 4 million sq ft of space.
  • Building materials used:
    • 29 million bricks
    • 60,000 tons of steel
    • 3.9 million cubic yards of concrete
    • 200,000 cubic feet of stone
    • 40 miles of plumbing
    • 380 miles of wiring
    • 400,000 windows
  • The central portion of the Mart is 18 stories high.
  • Total length of the corridors inside the Mart is estimated at 5 miles.

A portion of the Mart, at the top of the central column.
(Photo posted by UptownChiBoy)

What Is It?
  • The Merchandise Mart is a big showroom, or advertising space. The idea is that in one building, would-be shoppers can browse among lots of related goods, from furniture to gifts to apparel to jewelry, that might all work together in the shopper's home or office.
  • In addition to the showrooms, other companies occupy the other 50% of available space. The Mart's managers spin this element, saying that other companies are attracted by this hubbub of activity and want to be surrounded by sparkling new things and the bustle of happy shoppers. But it's probably also true that the Mart's owners need to fill that empty building space and will lease it out to other companies as needed.
  • Showrooms in the Mart include:
    • Kitchen & Bath Center: 95,000 sq ft of space housing 30 luxury boutiques for home building and renovation.

Lampshade, available from Urban Archaeology (Suite 108)

    • Residential Furnishings: houses 129 showrooms of everything from fireplaces to furniture to Oriental rugs.

Chair by KirkBrummel at Brunschwig & Fils (Suite 6-121)

    • Gift & Home: over 300 showrooms devoted to selling accents for the home and gifts. Many of the showrooms in this category are set up on a temporary or seasonal basis.

Kyoto Stand, made of Japanese maple by Dover Metals
(showroom 12-645). For use in hotels, it can also
be used in the home for a mere $300.

    • Casual Furnishings: 168,000 sq ft of casual and indoor furniture made of wood, wicker, wrought iron, resin, and similar materials.

This cantilevered umbrella (model #P-18) stands on a teak wooden pole and is available from FIM Umbrella (Suite 8-1000). Or you can design your own patio umbrella to be custom-made.

    • Commercial Furnishings: 180 showrooms on the 3rd, 10th, and 11th floors, specializing in furniture for retail, office, health care, institutional, and governmental environments.

Think you might want your office to look like this? That cabinet alone,
on which the flat-screen TV sits, will set you back a mere $4,300.
Part of the Mural office line from Nucraft (Suite 1166)

    • Apparel: 250 showrooms of wholesale apparel, purchased by buyers for retail stores. The 7th floor houses strictly bridal apparel, also for national retail buyers.
  • In addition to the showrooms and office space, you can also find these services (all of which support people buying stuff, getting together to talk about buying stuff, and shipping out the stuff they've bought):
    • Wine shop and gourmet market
    • Three full-service restaurants
    • Starbucks coffee shop
    • Dunkin' Donuts
    • Full-service bank
    • Currency exchange
    • Wireless services store
    • Hair salon
    • Photo finishing
    • Tailoring and dry cleaning
    • Bookstore
    • Travel agency
    • Card & gift shop
    • US Post Office
    • Federal Express office

The Merchandise Mart, during construction
(Photo from the Merchandise Mart)

  • The Merchandise Mart is the brainchild of James Simpson, who in 1928 was the president of Marshall Field's. At that time, Marshall Field's was the premier department store in Chicago, and probably for the entire country outside of New York City.
  • Simpson wanted to put all of Marshall Field's wholesale activities into one building. And back then, Marshall Field's had the clout to tell its vendors, You come to us, just as big box retailers like Home Depot and Staples can do today.
  • Simpson selected the site on the riverfront. The architecture firm he chose -- Graham, Anderson, Probst and White -- designed the building with a dignified exterior befitting Marshall Field's status, and a highly adaptable interior.
  • Construction was completed in 1931 at a total cost of $35 million. The timing couldn't have been worse, since the building was completed during the guts of the Great Depression.
  • In 1945, Marshall Field's sold the Mart to Joseph P. Kennedy for $12.5 million. Kennedy was a former ambassador to Great Britain, and his son went on to become the 35th President of the United States. Profits from the Mart helped finance JFK's 1960 Presidential campaign.

The Merchandise Mart in 1949
(Photo from the Encyclopedia of Chicago History)

  • Joseph Kennedy was the first to open the Mart for tours. Tours are still given today. They last 90 minutes and cost $12 for adults and $10 for students and seniors.
  • Kennedy also ordered the construction of 8 bronze busts outside the Mart. These are four times life size, and are supposed to "immortalize outstanding American merchants."

Who Owns It Now?
  • A boring realty trust company called Vornado owns it now. But the Mart is managed by a company called, appropriately enough, Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. They own and manage lots of properties like design centers or places they lease to retail businesses. They also manage two other Merchandise Marts besides the one in Chicago.
  • In addition to managing properties, the company also runs trade shows. They do all the planning and set-up and provide the equipment and so on. As part of their trade show business, they run NeoCon, which is billed as today's Chicago World's Fair and is held in the Merchandise Mart. Really, it's one of the largest trade shows in the commercial furnishings industry.

Chris, I'm sorry but I couldn't find anything online about parties on the roof of the Merchandise Mart back in some mysterious point in time. Looks like that's something you might have to look up in a book -- or I bet they'd tell you the answer during a tour of the building.

Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc.
The Merchandise Mart
Reference for Business, Marshall Field's history
For more about the 8 bronze heads, see Alice Maggio's Ask the Librarian entry from November 10, 2005


  1. I really enjoyed this one! Sounds like a fun place to visit. :)


  2. Hurray! A nice collection of details to digest and I'm particularly excited about the fact that there's a tour - I had no idea! Thanks for providing a great read and please continue to dole out those apples...


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