theMART has been an icon in Chicago’s history since the 1930s. It was developed by Marshall Field & Co. to create a central marketplace where retailers could come to buy their wares all under one roof.
The two-block building site is bordered by Orleans, Wells and Kinzie Streets, at the junction of the North, South and Main branches of the Chicago River. It is located just east of Wolf Point, the site of many Chicago firsts – first trading post, first hotel, first church, first three taverns and the first bridges across the Chicago River. The site was previously home to the Chicago and North Western Railroad’s Wells Street Station complex. theMART would be erected on the railroad’s air rights, which provided a site big enough to accommodate “the largest building in the world”.
Original designer Alfred Shaw conveyed the unique, modern concept of theMART with an Art Deco style and integration of elements from three building types: the warehouse, the department store and the skyscraper office building.
The building’s chambered corners, the minimal setbacks of the roofline and the corner pavilions serve to camouflage the edges of the basically rectilinear mass, visually reducing its weight and bulk. The building opens up at pedestrian level where the two-story base is glazed with the overscaled display windows typical of a department store. The 25-story central tower projects and rises from the main block to reveal its affinity with the corporate skyscraper.
The lobby of theMART, in an overall palette of buff, bronze and warm tones, exemplifies the understated elegance that characterizes Shaw’s later designs. Eight square marble piers, so slightly fluted that they appear to be merely striped, define the main lobby area. The terrazzo floor, in pale hues of green and orange, was conceived as a carpet: a lively pattern of squares and stripes bordered by overscaled chevrons inlaid with an abstraction of theMART’s initials. The chevron motif is carried out three-dimensionally in the column sconces that cast their light onto an ornamented cornice situated above. The crowning feature of the lobby is Jules Guerin’s frieze of murals, which complete the iconographic trilogy of the building.
Between the lobby and the elevator banks, the arcade that extends the length of the building provided the shops and services “normally found on the main street of almost any town.” During the earliest years of the building, this area was home to lunch counters, a restaurant and retail shops for everything from clothing to candy.
After a downturn during the Great Depression and a conversion of the building to government offices during World War II, theMART was returned to its initial use when it was purchased by Joseph P. Kennedy in 1945. Kennedy ushered in a new era of mercantile pride by reviving the original concept of the building and gradually allowing public access.
In the mid-1940s and 1950s, theMART was the single largest producer of trade shows in the United States. It helped to lay the foundation for Chicago’s continued leadership in America’s convention and tourism industry.
Today, theMART is the world’s largest commercial building, largest wholesale design center and one of Chicago’s premier international business locations. The Chicago icon encompasses 4.2 million gross square feet, spans two city blocks and rises 25 stories.