Friday, May 10, 2019

The History of Marshall Field’s Wholesale - Warehouse Store, Chicago (1885-1930).

By the time of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Marshall Field had established himself as one of the giants of commerce in the city of Chicago. His company was known for its innovative and groundbreaking policies and consisted of retail and wholesale divisions. The building they shared was destroyed in the fire, allowing Field to construct new buildings for each. 

In 1872, he completed a five-story structure at Madison and Water Streets (now Wacker) to house the wholesale division. Within a decade, the division was already outgrowing its space as Field continued to add new product lines. 

By May 1881, he had purchased all the lots on the block bordered by Adams, Fifth (now Wells), Quincy, and Franklin, near the location of the Chicago Board of Trade Building.

In 1885, Field contacted architect Henry Hobson Richardson with the proposition of designing a new building on the site for the Marshall Field's Wholesale Store (sometimes referred to as the Marshall Field's Warehouse Store).

Richardson completed preliminary plans by summer and, in October, traveled to Chicago to unveil the finished plans and sign the contract. By December 1885, the foundation was in, and the stonework was underway, but the building did not even begin to approach completion before Richardson's untimely death in April 1886.
The statistics for the building were staggering for the time being. The completed structure stood seven stories high, with a full basement on spread foundations. It fronted 325 feet on Adams, 190 feet on Franklin and Wells, and was 130 feet tall. The plan encompassed 61,750 square feet per floor, totaling almost twelve acres of floor space, which could accommodate 1,800 employees. The final cost of $888,807 ($25,077,735 today) was an enormous sum of money at the time but just a fraction of the wholesale division sales for 1887, which were over $23,000,000 ($648,946,100 today). Marshall Field owned the land and building and leased it back to his company. The Wholesale Store opened on June 20, 1887, amid little fanfare in comparison to the opening of the retail store. 

The load-bearing outer walls were brick covered by rock-faced Missouri red granite up to the second-floor windowsills and East Longmeadow red sandstone above. The structure was impressive for its overall size and the size of the stones used. Adjectives such as "enormous," "palatial," "Cyclopean," "immense," and "mammoth" were used to describe it in contemporary accounts. These terms are not surprising, given that the stones in the granite base were larger than those utilized in any other building in the city. The first-floor window sills alone were nearly eighteen feet long.
The second through fourth floors were tied together by the main arcade stretching thirteen bays on Adams, and seven each on Franklin and Wells between broad corner piers ornamented with boltels. The fifth and sixth floors were also joined by an arcade with two arches over everyone for the below floors. Groups of four rectangular openings marked the top floor, creating a horizontal band above the vertically thrusting arches. 

Above this was the crocket cornice in Gothic style "vigorously and crudely cut, to be in scale with the whole mass which it terminates." The plate glass windows, set in wood framed double-hung sash, were recessed to the inner face of the walls to emphasize the thickness of the stone when viewed from the exterior.
Packing Department
Despite the lavish praise of the building, pure economics eventually led to its demolition. By the early 1920s, the wholesale division was in serious trouble. The railroad and especially the automobile made it easier for rural residents to travel into larger cities to shop, spelling disaster for the country merchants who had been wholesale's best customers. Additionally, many of the merchants in the small towns succumbed to manufacturers' appeals to buy directly at lower prices, and the success of huge mail-order houses further contributed to the decline of wholesale. To breathe new life into the wholesale division, plans were announced in 1927 to construct a massive new facility, covering two city blocks and containing 4,000,000 square feet of space. The new building, the Merchandise Mart, served as the death knell for Richardson's Wholesale Store building.

The Merchandise Mart, built by Marshall Field & Co. and later owned for over half a century by the Kennedy family, opened in 1930.

Marshall Field & Co. engaged Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to draw up specifications for demolishing the old building. The massive structure was reduced to rubble by mid-summer to accommodate a parking lot. Little was salvaged except machinery and equipment, lighting fixtures, brass rails, gates and revolving doors. The granite and sandstone, praised for their visual impact, were used as fill to create a level surface for the asphalt parking lot.
Marshall Field Wholesale Advertisement from 1907.
Marshall Field Wholesale Advertisement from 1907.
Marshall Field Wholesale Advertisement from 1907.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Still miss Marshall Fields! Loved reading this history!

  2. i bet the construction workers for the next building on that site had a rude awakening with all those massive stones!

    1. The article states: "The massive structure was reduced to rubble by mid-summer to accommodate a parking lot."


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