Merchandise Mart | Chicago Landmark, Shopping Center (2024)

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building, Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Also known as: The Mart

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Also called:
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Merchandise Mart, landmark building in downtown Chicago, one of the largest commercial buildings in the world and the largest wholesale design centre. Encompassing some 4,200,000 square feet (390,000 square metres) of floor space, the Merchandise Mart spans two city blocks along the Chicago River, rises 25 stories, and was the largest building in the world when it opened in 1930. Today it features retail shops, boutiques, radio and television studios, 10 floors of office space, and 11 floors of permanent showrooms. It hosts dozens of trade shows and community events annually that attract designers, architects, builders, consumers, and tourists alike.

History

The Merchandise Mart was built by retailer It was the desire of James Simpson, president of the company and chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, to consolidate Field’s wholesale activities, which were then scattered throughout the city in 13 warehouses, into a single national centre where both consumers and retail managers could shop for home and commercial furnishings—and to beautify Chicago’s riverfront in the process. The location along the north bank of the Chicago River, at the confluence of its North and South branches and just east of Wolf Point (the site of the area’s first trading post where trappers bartered with Native Americans), was chosen not only because the area could accommodate a building of that size—but also because the building would replace the unsightly train yard then occupying the space.

The Merchandise Mart was designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White under chief architect Alfred P. Shaw. Construction began on Aug. 16, 1928, and the building opened on May 5, 1930. The Mart housed Field’s wholesale showrooms and manufacturing facilities and leased floor space to retail tenants. Amenities included restaurants, parking facilities, a bank, a post office, and a telegraph office.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s and into the 1940s, the Mart found its commitment to the wholesale trade market hard to maintain. After losing millions of dollars, Field’s management closed down its wholesale activities—although some showrooms remained open—and leased space to the federal government, filling the Mart with government offices and federal employees. After the completion of the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., in 1943, the Mart changed its signature motto from “the largest building in the world” to “the largest commercial building in the world.”

In 1945 the Mart was sold to Joseph P. Kennedy, who ushered in a new era of commercial vitality by reviving the original concept of the building and gradually reopening it to the public. Under the leadership of general managers Wally Ollman and Kennedy’s future son-in-law Sargent Shriver, government offices were converted back to showrooms, and efforts became focused on hosting conventions and events that would encourage retailers from across the country to converge on the Mart. These conventions were among the first trade shows in Chicago and paved the way for the city to play a major role in the country’s convention and tourism industry. In the 1940s and ’50s more trade shows took place at the Mart than at any other venue in the United States.

The Mart also became famous as a media centre, housing numerous radio and television stations, including Chicago’s NBC studios. On April 15, 1956, those studios were the site of a milestone in broadcasting: the transformation of Chicago’s Channel 5 into the first television station in the world to present its entire slate of programming in colour. On that day, with NBC network president Robert Sarnoff at the controls, the program Wide Wide World was broadcast from the Mart to more than a hundred affiliates across the country.

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The Kennedy family owned the Merchandise Mart for more than 50 years. During that half-century the Mart contributed greatly to the Kennedy family’s varied interests, from John F. Kennedy’s successful run for the U.S. presidency in 1960 to the launching of the Peace Corps (with Shriver serving as its founding director) in 1961 and the Special Olympics movement (first conceived in 1962 by Joseph Kennedy’s daughter and Shriver’s wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver). The Kennedy family sold the Mart to the Vornado Realty Trust in 1998. Christopher Kennedy, a grandson of Joseph and son of Robert F. Kennedy, was president of the Mart from 2000 to 2011.

Building and artwork

The Merchandise Mart’s design combines Art Deco characteristics with elements of three building types: the blockiness of a warehouse, the oversized windows on the ground level typical of a department store, and a tall central tower reminiscent of a skyscraper. Chambred corners, minimal setbacks of the roofline, and corner pavilions helped to minimize the structure’s mass and bulk. Originally placed around the tower’s crown were 56 sculpted heads of American Indian chiefs, a reference to the site’s early days as a trading post. Barely visible from the street, those 7-foot- (2-metre-) tall terra-cotta sculptures were intended to be seen from the upper floors of future skyscrapers built around the Mart. In 1961 the sculptures were removed, destroyed, and replaced with plain plates. A design motif of the Merchandise Mart’s initials—interlocking letter Ms—is used throughout the building. Noted muralist Jules Guerin, who frequently collaborated with Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, created a frieze of 17 murals in the lobby that highlight aspects of commerce in the many countries whose wares were sold in the building.

In 1953 Joseph Kennedy, wanting “to immortalize outstanding American merchants,” commissioned eight bronze busts, each four times life-size, for what came to be known as the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame. Resting on white pedestals along the Chicago River and facing north toward the gold front door of the building are busts of Frank Winfield Woolworth, Marshall Field, Aaron Montgomery Ward, Julius Rosenwald and Robert E. Wood (both associated with Sears, Roebuck and Company), John Wanamaker, Edward A. Filene, and George Huntington Hartford (founder of the grocery chain).

In 1977 the Mart opened the Chicago Apparel Center in a building adjacent to it and completed an enclosed pedestrian bridge connecting the two buildings in 1988. The Mart received LEED-EB (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings) Silver recognition in 2007, making it the largest building in the world to be thus certified.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Lorraine Murray.

Merchandise Mart | Chicago Landmark, Shopping Center (2024)

FAQs

Does the Kennedy family still own the Merchandise Mart? ›

In 1945, with Field's wholesale business in decline, Joseph P. Kennedy purchased the Merchandise Mart. It remained Kennedy family property until sold to the Vornado Realty Trust in 1998. Designed by the famed firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, it still stands downtown along the Chicago River.

Is the Merchandise Mart the largest building in the world? ›

THE MART is the world's largest commercial building and design center and one of Chicago's premier international business locations. THE MART is 4.2 million gross square feet, spanning two city blocks and rising 25 stories.

What building do the Kennedys own in Chicago? ›

The Kennedy family owned the Merchandise Mart for more than 50 years. During that half-century the Mart contributed greatly to the Kennedy family's varied interests, from John F.

What companies are in the Merchandise Mart? ›

THE MART serves as the home to Chicago's most creative and technologically innovative companies, including Motorola Mobility, 1871, PayPal, Avant and MATTER, as well as Fortune 500 companies Conagra Brands, Allstate, Medline Industries, Beam Suntory, IPG, and Grainger.

How much did Joseph Kennedy pay for the Merchandise Mart? ›

(MMPI), and managed by Sargent Shriver. Kennedy's purchase price was reported to be either $12.5 or $13 million, and it is said that his initial capital was $1 million, though records say his original mortgage was $12.5 million, this was roughly half of what it had cost to construct the complex twenty years earlier.

Where does the Kennedy family get their money? ›

The Merchandise Mart's revenues became a principal source of wealth that formed much of the Kennedy family's private fortune, including being a source of funding for financing his sons' future political campaigns.

How much was Merchandise Mart sold for? ›

Kennedy's son) Chris Kennedy told me his grandfather “invested in Chicago because he believed it was the crossroads of the nation.” That was 13 years after the family sold the Merchandise Mart, the neighboring Apparel Center and other real estate in Washington, D.C., to Vornado for $625 million.

What is the famous arch in Chicago? ›

The Gateway Arch is a testament to Americans' vision, ambition and audacity – a feat of engineering, a marvel of political maneuvering, and a stunning work of modern architecture. The official story is that the Midwest's most recognizable monument was built to pay homage to St.

Does the Merchandise Mart have its own zip code? ›

The Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago was built in 1930. It is so big it had its own zip code all the way until 2008.

Who lives in the main house at the Kennedy Compound? ›

The Kennedy Compound became a U.S. National Landmark in 1972, but none of the homes are open for public visitation. Ethel Kennedy still owns and resides in the home she lived in with her late husband, while the Big House was donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in 2013.

Where do all the Kennedys live? ›

One of the most prominent political families in United States history, the Kennedys are American royalty. And while most people know of their famous family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., they also live in lavish homes elsewhere in the country.

Is Joe Kennedy related to JFK? ›

A member of the Kennedy family, he is a son of U.S. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, a grandson of U.S. Senator and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, a grandnephew of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, and a great-grandson of U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P.

Who are the heads at the Merchandise Mart? ›

Resting on white pedestals along the Chicago River and facing north toward the gold front door of the building are busts of Frank Winfield Woolworth, Marshall Field, Aaron Montgomery Ward, Julius Rosenwald and Robert E. Wood (both associated with Sears,…

What style is the Merchandise Mart? ›

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.

When was the Mart in Chicago built? ›

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