The Merchandise Mart
is located in Chicago, Illinois
, just north of the Chicago River
on the corner of Wells and Orleans Steets. The building was the idea of James Simpson
, president of Marshall Field and Company
as well as a commissioner on the Chicago Plan Commission from 1926 to 1935. His desire was to consolidate Marshall Field's wholesale operations, which were scattered around the city in 13 different warehouses
. The wholesale business had been losing money for the previous seven years, and it was hoped that a consolidation of the business would help to but the books back in the black.
The firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White designed the building, and construction began in 1927. The design was flexible, allowing for this large space to be partitioned in many different forms. When the building was opened on May 5, 1930, it was the largest building in the world, twenty-six stories tall and over 4 million square feet. Such a large building allowed the Marshall Field Company to rent space in the building to offset the cost of construction. Unfortunately, the building opened six months into the Great Depression, and did little to help the fares of the Marshall Field wholesale business, which was soon occupied only half a floor of the building.
During World War II, Merchandise Mart became the home to many military offices. The construction of the Pentagon, at 6.4 million square feet, made the Merchandise Mart the largest commercial building in the world. In 1945, Marshall Field sold the Mart to Joseph P. Kennedy, who was the father of the 35th President. Kennedy said that he was interested in the Merchandise Mart because of his "faith in Chicago and the Middle West" and in Chicago's "great commercial and industrial future."
Kennedy's staff went to work converting the bottom floors to office space, and encouraging the use of the upper floors as furniture showrooms. The Mart was open to the public starting in 1948, and daily tours of the showrooms were given. A major renovation project began in the late 1950's, with the exterior of the building slightly redesigned. The renovation also gave the building the "Merchant’s Hall of Fame" which Kennedy dedicated to outstanding American merchants.
As other buildings similar to the Merchandise Mart were constructed across the country in the 1960's, Kennedy and his holding company, Merchandise Mart Properties Inc, felt the need to compete and expand. MMPI opened the Washington Design Center in Washington, D.C., as well as the Chicago Apparel Center across Orleans Street from the Merchandise Mart.
Another renovation as undertaken in 1986, under the direction of Beyer Blinder Belle, a New York City architectural firm known for restoring historic buildings. The new design created a large retail center on the bottom floors of the Merchandise Mart, allowing more display space and easier access to the showrooms above. Additional entrances were created around the perimeter of the building, allowing easier access from all sides. A pedestrian bridge was built between the Merchandise Mart and the Apparel Center, allowing access to both buildings without crossing the street.
Today, the Merchandise Mart is the home to many trade shows, including home and architectural design fairs. The Mart welcomes 3 million visitors annually, for both trade shows, and the collection of stores on the bottom levels of the building.
When the Merchandise Mart was completed, the Chicago Rail Transit Company built a stop at the Mart in co-ordination with their North Water Street terminal. The station connected with the Mart on the second floor, allowing easy access to the building by train. Over the years, both the station and the second floor of the Mart have radically changed, but the fundamental access remains the same. The Mart is one of two commercial structures in Chicago to have it's own "L" station, the other being the Thompson Center. The Mart can be reached on the Brown or Purple lines of the CTA.