Ride the trolley to the Chicago River, then step off to tour the lobbies of six opulent Art Deco skyscrapers…
Size has always mattered in the Midwest.
From the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas, to the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, Illinois, the pursuit of bigger and better is evident in the region’s landscape. The Merchandise Mart, situated on the Chicago River, occupies more than 4 million square feet (approximately 372,000 square meters) or the equivalent of two-and-a-half city blocks. Upon its completion in 1930, it was the largest building in the world and served as Marshall Field’s wholesale warehouse, where retailers could buy stock.
Another Chicago Example of Art Deco
Designed by Alfred P. Shaw for the architecture firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the Merchandise Mart is one of many Art Deco buildings in Chicago that reflect the optimism of the 1920s. The steel-framed structure is clad in limestone, terra cotta and bronze, and its ornamentation displays many of the style’s popular motifs. The recessed vertical windows with dark spandrels emphasize the building’s verticality and balance out its horizontal mass. Rows of decorative chevrons (zigzags) and diagonal towers at each corner of the building are common motifs used during the Art Deco era.
The Ups and Downs of the Mart
The Merchandise Mart began as a wholesale warehouse store for Marshall Field that included rental space for other wholesalers. The idea was to unite the sales of furniture, fabric and other decorative materials under one roof. However, it wasn’t the financial success investors expected. The Great Depression forced Field & Company out of the wholesale market. In 1945, the building was sold to a group headed by Joseph P. Kennedy for about a third of its original cost.
The Kennedy family held onto the property for more than three decades and sold the building in 1998 to Vornado Realty Trust. Soon thereafter, the building received retrofits to implement energy efficiency measures and to integrate real -time data into its operations. It’s still a designer showcase venue today. More than one quarter of the building is leased by tech companies including Motorola Mobility and tech startup incubator 1871.